The Google Analytics 4 Library: How to Make GA4 Look Like UA

Google Analytics 4 Library

It’s been four months now since Google announced that Universal Analytics, GA4’s predecessor, was set to stop collecting data on July 1, 2023. When that day comes, GA4 will be the only Google Analytics game in town.

Due to the changes that GA4 brings to every aspect of data collection, processing, and reporting, most of us in SEO are frankly still getting used to it, so we greet this date’s approach with some apprehension. And although our responses might vary across the industry if we were all asked to name the changes that trouble us most, I actually think it would actually be rather easy to sum them up: GA4 simply doesn’t look anything like we’re used to Google Analytics looking.

If, like many of us, you became deeply, intuitively familiar with UA over the past decade, the first few hours or days of using GA4 felt like having a weird dream about GA, one of those dreams where everything is just a little bit off. All the reports and report collections (but one) have different names! The page reports show us page titles instead of URLs! What’s with all these horizontal bar graphs and scatter plots?

These laments all boil down to: why can’t these new reports look more like my old reports? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that with just a little bit of tinkering, they kinda can.

The best-kept secret of GA4 is that the Reports section is customizable. You can modify any of the reports it contains — or add new ones, or delete any you don’t need — and you can also edit the Collections menus (the ones that say “Life cycle” and “User” by default) so as to group your reports together according to whatever categorization schema is most useful to you. It’s all possible through a little tucked-away link at the bottom of the sidebar nav — a link that only shows when you are in Reports — that says “Library”.

The Reports Library only shows to admins, but if you’ve got that level of access, and if you’re ready to remake your reports into something you can read, this is where you’re going to want to click (indicated in pink):

…and what you’re going to see when you do:

Get a load of that! Especially with that three-dots menu pulled up, it’s immediately clear that you can consider yourself free to change what GA4 shows you and how it shows it. For all the comfort we attained with UA over the years, it never gave us this kind of power to hone the appearance of a view around our particular KPIs. We’re being let under the hood here, not all the way down to the code level — where many of us, myself included, could and would break things — but to the level of, let’s say, data manager: we can’t dictate in here what data are collected (at least not without some custom coding or use of Google Tag Manager), but we can dictate what data shows and where. In other words, Google still wrote the movie, but we’re being invited to direct it, whereas when we used UA, we were just sitting in the audience. But at least the ticket was free! I don’t know where I’m going with this.

Anyway, let’s take a quick look at some of the gears turning in here so I can show you how to seize control of them. Then, I’ll give you an example of a report that I edited inside UpBuild’s GA4 install to yield up better insights, and another report that I created from scratch. You’ll be amazed how easy this is, and how far it will go toward freeing you from this core frustration of using GA4.

Anatomy of the GA4 Library

We are greeted on the Library’s main page by two menus: Collections, and Reports. On a new, standard, web-only install of GA4, the Collections menu shows you the two Collections that are there by default — Life cycle and User — and shows you what currently populates each one, with an “Edit collection” option clearly visible at the bottom. To the left is a mostly blank square with a Googly plus sign in it that says “Create new collection”. This is as plain an invitation to customize as you could ask for:

Below that is the Reports menu, which also shows you the reports that are there by default, and which collection they belong to, along with a blue button inviting you to create a new one:

You may have already noticed that the items appearing in the collections menus don’t match the names of the reports — e.g. under the “Life cycle” collection, we see “Acquisition”, but in the reports menu we see “Acquisition overview”, “User acquisition”, and “Traffic acquisition”. What’s the story with that? It’s that there’s one intermediate taxonomic category between a collection and a report, which they call a topic. A topic is simply a banner under which closely related reports can be grouped. Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization, and Retention are the topics that live in the Life cycle collection. And “Acquisition overview”, “User acquisition”, and “Traffic acquisition” are the reports that live within the Acquisition topic.

In all the standard collections, each topic contains an Overview report and one or more Detail reports. The former are typically just a bunch of summary cards, while the latter contain sortable tables. More on those distinctions later. For now, have a peek at the “Edit collection” screen for the Life cycle collection, and it will start to make sense:

Again, look how free you are to reconfigure this stuff, and how intuitive they make it. Every item in the Life cycle collection at left has a dot square at the left edge for rearranging, and an X at the right edge for deletion, including the topics. So you wouldn’t be required to lash together a group of reports under a topic if you didn’t want to. You wouldn’t have to follow any of this guidance beyond the basic Collections > Reports concept if you didn’t want to. They’re modeling it for you this way, but you’re free to reject the model. And in fact this aspect of the Library experience is all so self-explanatory that I think we can move on to editing a report.

Customizing a Report in Google Analytics 4

Let’s hop into that Reports screen that we showed before and take a closer look. As you browse there, you notice this Type column, populated by icons, of which there are only two. These are Overview (the tile mosaic icon), and Detail (the horizontal bar atop three vertical bars):

The Overview reports are comprised of so-called “summary cards” that mostly offer you simple, sweeping visualizations and leaderboards. These Overview reports, which are new to GA4, are perhaps inessential, especially to those of us at agencies who tend to look deep whenever we look at GA at all — I haven’t made much use of them yet myself — but I can see them being helpful for quick check-ins once we get used to their presence and allow ourselves to start relying on them. Then there are the Detail reports, which center on a table that can be filtered and sorted. Those are the ones that are inherited from UA and are going to remind you of it. So let’s honor the spirit of this post’s title and roll that way in choosing which one we want to edit.

I’m thinking we edit the Pages and Screens report, which lives under Engagement, and which is probably the best example of a standard GA4 report that looks and behaves just differently enough from its UA counterpart (“All Pages”) as to flummox. Let’s click into it, take a look at what it gives you by default, and then see how we can manipulate it to look more like the UA report we’re used to.

Here’s the default presentation of Pages and screens (page names redacted):

Not a bad report as it stands, but I could see making a few changes. For a start, I don’t think that bar chart on the left lends any new perspective on the data in the table, because all it shows is the comparative total view counts that the top five pages have accrued over the date range set. If we were to change it to a line graph, though, then we’d see how the views of each of those pages rose and fell over the course of that date range, which constitutes new information. Let’s make the swap! First, we’ll find our way over to the slideout on the right and click the arrow next to Bar Chart:

We’re given the choice to select a Line Chart instead, so let’s select that and hit the blue “Apply” button at the bottom:

Hey, that’s a bit better! It definitely looks more like the old All Pages report from UA due to that line chart swap, and after an adjustment period, we might even conceivably come to prefer this particular line chart for the way it plots the performance of the top five pages individually rather than just giving us the site’s aggregate page views total along a single axis.

I’m going to leave the scatter chart because I can see it being valuable to correlate page views with users, but if I wanted to get rid of it, all I’d have to do is click the eye icon in that slideout to hide it. Doing that would allow the line chart to spread out over that whole horizontal space. If that sounds nice to you, go for it!

Now let’s get to changing the table around, as that’s the main thing we want out of this. A few quick strokes of a mouse and it’ll be nice and cozy in our comfort zone. First things first: I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ll ever prefer to see my pages referred to by their public-facing title tags. I am just way too used to thinking in terms of URLs and I see no benefit in breaking that stride. So I’m going to make that switch. Let’s click the right arrow on “Dimensions”:

And we’ll see that among the alternative options given is “Page path + query string and screen class”. That’s the one! We’ll click on the three-dots menu and select “Set as default”, and then hit the blue “Apply” button again:

Before we check in with the visual appearance of the report again, let’s make our desired changes to the metrics as well. Here’s the list we’re given in the slideout:

I certainly intend to keep Views as the primary, i.e. the one that we sort by (that’s the meaning of the down arrow), but I’m wondering about some of the ones closer to the bottom. Well, actually, there are a few that I know we don’t need here at UpBuild, beginning with Total revenue. We don’t sell anything through the site, so that one can go. But I’m also going to get rid of Conversions, because our lead form doesn’t appear on every page; in fact, it only appears on one. So let’s click that X as well. And frankly, I don’t see much value in Event count (as not all events are created equal), nor in Unique user scrolls (as we don’t insert CTAs or other conversion path entrances into the middle of our content) So let’s get rid of those too. And then let’s click the “Add metric” button at the bottom and see if we might replace the ones we took out with alternatives that would be more useful day-to-day (alternatives that just might look a little more like the standard metrics provided in UA).

You know what metric I still like? Sessions. Google has been pushing us to let go of thinking in terms of sessions and start thinking in terms of users, but I personally think it’s OK for us to continue including sessions among our KPIs as long as we don’t utterly cocoon ourselves in it. In other words, let’s keep Users in there, but add Sessions alongside it. I’m also going to add “Engaged sessions”, since GA4 has substituted this “engaged” subset of users and sessions metrics for the “Average time on site” metric that we used to get. Here’s the new lineup:

Hit “Apply”, and we’re about to have ourselves a brand new Pages and screens report… or, rather, something that looks an awful lot like the old All Pages report:

Hit the blue “Save” button at the top-right, and that’s all there is to it.

Rest assured, it took me about ten times longer to edit these screenshots to redact the data than it did to actually make the substantive changes to the report formats, so unless you’re also customizing your reports for the purpose of writing a blog post exactly like this one, I wouldn’t worry about the time investment. I also would expect the range of customizable options to only expand in the next few months and years as Google expands the GA4 feature set and integrates more user feedback into its workings. Nice!

Let’s move along to creating a whole new report from scratch.

Creating a New Report in Google Analytics 4

Just from observing the discourse on Twitter and elsewhere, it becomes clear that the Landing Pages report is the one whose removal from the standard set has caused the most consternation, so let’s create one of those.

Here’s where we’re going to click:

And here’s what we’re going to see:

Several more templates are shown below these first three, all meant to give you starting places. For pedagogical reasons, though, we’re going to start from blank today. Here’s the nice canvas we’re given:

Now interestingly, even though Google has neglected to include a Landing Pages report in the standard GA4 reporting set, the Landing Page dimension is included among the standard dimensions (it actually was a late addition, but it finally arrived). So our choice of primary dimension is going to be quite obvious. Let’s click on the Dimensions arrow:

…and select “Landing page” as our primary.

Now, we’re not going to see anything in the table until we add a metric, and although we’re supposed to start speaking in terms of Users, and it goes against Google’s wishes for us to stay ensconced in Sessions-land, we’re talking in this post about recreating the familiar from UA, so let’s wrap ourselves in the comfort of the familiar and choose “Sessions”, following the exact same simple selection process that we carried out to choose our dimension. First, we’ll click the Metrics arrow, and then we’ll select “Sessions” from the menu:

Hit “Apply”, and here’s what we’ll see (redacted again by way of placeholder URLs):

A landing pages report! With a page paths dimension and sessions as our primary metric. It’s like slipping into a warm bath!

Let’s fill in a few more metrics using the same selection process. We’ll add “Users” just to try to keep it in the mix, along with “Sessions per User”, “Engaged sessions”, “Engaged sessions per user”, “Views”, and “Conversions”. This way, we’ll get a nice traffic and engagement overview for all the site’s top landing pages all in one place. Here’s our Metrics slideout:

Let’s also swap the bar chart for the line chart like we did on the edited Pages and screens report (we can always swap it back if we change our minds). Hit “Apply”, and here’s what we’ve got:

Ba-boom! Customized right into the ol’ comfort zone!

I hope this knowledge makes the impending switch to GA4 — whether you’re in the thick of it right now or still seeing it on the horizon — a little less intimidating, and the transition a little smoother. And if this post has been helpful and it leads to you discovering more capabilities of the Library, let me know in the comments what other reports you’ve edited or created. We can’t stay in the warm bed of UA forever, but hopping out doesn’t have to be as terrible as you think.

Written by
Driven by a deep fascination with the philosophical and cultural implications of search, Will has applied his skills to improve visibility, traffic, and conversions for hundreds of sites in his 10+ years in SEO and analytics.

Related Posts

Comments (7)

  1. Great article! Thank you!

    I have a question. Is it possible to create such a report and import it to multiple properties or accounts?

    1. Hi Timo,

      I could be wrong, but I don’t believe that’s possible due to each GA4 property being built according to its own unique array of “data streams”. I suppose if two properties shared the exact same data stream configuration, then any report that made sense to one of them would make sense to the other, but I think from Google’s perspective the question would be “if your two properties share the same data stream configuration, why do you need two of them in the first place”. All this having been said, the aspect of GA4 that we can all be surest of is that it’s a very young platform that is almost certainly going to change a lot over the first few years of its life, so who knows how they might reimagine the relationship between a property and a report over the long term. Thanks for your question, and best of luck to you!

  2. Hi, Have you worked out if filter can be applied to the primary dimension?
    i.e if you select event name as primary dimension, but only want to display the desired event name (rather than all event names), it appears this isnt possible currently.

    1. Hi Winston,

      Unless I’m misunderstanding you, I think you can achieve that filtration just by typing the event name you want to filter for into the search bar directly above the table. Let me know if you mean something else!

  3. Great article, but one thing that didn’t seem to be covered was to how to use that same custom report over and over again with different dates. There doesn’t appear to be a way to change dates directly from within Custom Reports for ad hoc reporting.

    I think I found out how to do it:

    1) Create your custom report
    2) Add your Custom Report to an existing Collection or create a new one.
    3) Publish that Collection! (I missed this step and it was driving me nuts.)
    4) Then your Collection and its associated reports will appear in the left nav bar.
    5) When you click on any of those reports, you can change the date ranges.
    6) Voila!

    I suspect there is a faster way, but this is what I could figure out. 🙂

  4. Hi Will – do you know if there’s a way to make the line graph at the top a cumulative of all sessions, rather than it breaking out each Landing Page as a new line? I know I can achieve this in EXPLORE but I would love to have this card displayed as a cumulative overview of all page sessions rather than by page.
    Thanks in advance

    1. Hi Hannah,

      Not that I know of. The Reports (as opposed to Explorations, per your note) seem to want to bind the graphs and plots to the data tables that appear below them. The wizard doesn’t give you the power to select different dimensions or metrics for the graph than the ones assigned to the table. They want to keep each “report” singular and coherent. I think Explorations is where you’ll want to invest your time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *