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Google Analytics 4: Why We Need to Rethink Web Tracking

Analytics + Monitoring

The protection of personal data is becoming increasingly important. With the buzzwords DSGVO, GDPR, ITP and ePrivacy, everyone is putting up their eavesdroppers - justifiably so. What's more, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, companies need to think of new ways to continue targeting their audience. Google Analytics as we knew it is being replaced by the new version, Google Analytics 4, and it brings with it many fundamental changes. As a result, we are now facing a new era of web tracking. In this article you will learn how to make your web tracking future-proof. Here you can find out how to take full advantage of the current technological possibilities (in compliance with data protection laws). 

1. Why Google Analytics 4 (GA4)? 

Google Analytics - Most users who regularly use the world's most widespread web analytics tool would probably describe their relationship status like this: It's complicated. We love the depth of analytics, the integration with other tools, and the insights we can get from the data. But often enough, there are also problems with the data, some events are not tracked properly and valuable data gets lost. And if digital marketers say they've never had any problems with Google Analytics, they're probably lying. 
Nevertheless, Google Analytics is indispensable for us in web tracking and it looks like many weaknesses and points that have always led to many question marks have been fixed with Google Analytics 4. New features and parameters make Google Analytics 4 more flexible and customizable than any other web tracking tool. However, the more freedom a tool offers, the more room there is for mistakes in setup and use. 
While Google is virtually forcing you to use the new version, since Universal Analytics will no longer process data after June 2023 and you will therefore have to switch to the new version, it is of course time to carefully consider whether Google Analytics 4 is right for your own company. We are convinced that the possibilities for customization and data modeling that GA4 offers exceed the functionality of other tools. So, don't waste time, implement Google Analytics 4 and dive into data analysis.

2. No Cookies, No Future? 

With Google's announcement that it will no longer support third party cookies in Google Chrome starting in 2025, the end of the third party cookie era and thus the end of traditional tracking is looming. Third party cookies - as a quick reminder - are the type of cookies that are set on a website by third parties (for example, advertisers like Facebook, Google Ads, etc.). 
These third party cookies, in particular, are a recurring security concern because consent to process user data cannot always be explicitly given. For online marketers, third party cookies were an ingenious solution to deeply analyze user behavior - but with the increasing strengthening of the GDPR and the increased focus on data security, the use of these cookies is now often no longer legally secure. However, completely dispensing with user data is not a satisfactory solution for most companies. After all, there is no impact without insight. Therefore, a solution must be found that offers no disadvantages for both companies and users.

Master plan: Server Side Tagging

This solution offers Server Side Tagging. On the one hand, Server Side Tagging continues to collect valuable and useful user data, but on the other hand, the whole thing no longer runs via third-party providers and can therefore be used in compliance with DSGVO. Sounds good, doesn't it?
With Server Side Tagging, a tag or pixel sends data to the web server (customer's server or Google Cloud Server, for example). This web server then forwards the data to one or more target servers. There is a data stream that enables and controls access to the data by relevant services. Because the data is collected by a central system and forwarded to third parties, there is overarching control over the conditions for accessing and using that data. For example, explicit consent can be given by the user, who can allow certain cookies or other web technologies, but reject others.
This data can then continue to be processed by GA4 and the relevant analyses can be performed. 

This avoids:

  • website performance degradation due to incorrect tag configuration,

  • limited control over script behavior and the ability to audit it, 

  • security suffering due to increased access to systems and data by third parties

  • that there is an incomplete view of customers due to different data sources, such as ad blockers and other technologies that restrict or expire cookies.

Seek + Find Server Side Tracking Dark Mode

It is obvious: Server Side Tagging is a huge, independent topic that goes beyond the boundaries of GA4. However, anyone considering the migration to GA4 should also plan for Server Side Tagging in order to have a holistic and far-reaching tracking concept. A future without third party cookies with Server Side Tagging does not necessarily have to mean the abandonment of important data, but rather introduces the future of tracking in compliance with data protection laws and brings many advantages - both for users and for companies.

3. Consent is King

The fact that Google is in the public pillory for its handling of data protection is nothing new. Especially last year, there was a lot of speculation about whether and how Google Analytics is still compatible with the GDPR guidelines of the EU, since the data is sent to the USA and there is no sufficient regulation between the EU and the USA about the processing of user data. So Google Analytics 4 is also the next logical step in this respect, since with the new version there with GA4 also GDPR settings are made possible. It should also be possible with GA4 to use cookie-less web tracking. However, caution is advised here, because users must of course still agree to the processing of their data via a consent manager - otherwise, you are back to the problems with GDPR and Co. 
For the integration of GA4 with the Google Tag Manager, a consent solution is required - as well as for Server Side Tracking. Here it is worthwhile to get external help to be legally secured. Since we are not allowed to give legal advice here and all cases are of course very individual, it should only be mentioned at this point that GA4 is making great progress in the area of data protection, but the consent of the users must still be obtained via the corresponding consent. Usercentrics, for example, provides a lot of information online on how to integrate GA4 in a privacy-compliant manner and how to set up a consent solution correctly.

4. Stay Focused

At first glance, Google Analytics 4 can seem a bit overwhelming. The multitude of new reports, the elimination of familiar views, and in some cases completely new metrics (e.g. Engaged Sessions) initially represent a lot of new features that we still have to get used to. While the setup and orientation to the new views takes some time, it is important to keep a clear head. Particularly crucial in this regard is the way we look at the data and always be asking the question: What exactly do I want to find out? Which data is important to answer my questions or to achieve the company's goals? How can performance be improved in the long term? How do I collect, analyze and interpret this data?
At the same time, GA4 definitely requires more data analysis capability. Due to some new features and a larger amount of data, it is not always easy to keep track of the essentials. Especially in the beginning, it makes sense to take time to understand functions, dimensions, and filters. 
When converting from Universal Analytics to GA4, theoretically all events and targets can be transferred or newly created. There is even a feature called Collect Universal Analytics Events. This setting transfers UA events to GA4. However, already existing errors are quickly transferred as well. The evolution of Universal Analytics to GA4 has improved many technical shortcomings - so why not take advantage of this instead of taking old messes with you into the new environment? So our tip for the new setup is to really look at what goals you want to track. There are still various tracking corpses buried in some Analytics Properties. Now is the best time to focus on the important targets to extract the most value from the data and gain a market advantage.

5. Web + App Analysis without Borders

Google Analytics 4 is the logical step in tracking, and making big developments towards Web 3. By recognizing visitors of a website not only by visits but also across platforms, it is much easier for companies to interpret their actual behavior. What was previously based more on conjecture is now being taken even further with data-driven machine-learning insights. Companies thus get the opportunity to track their users both on the website and via the associated apps. This not only improves data interpretation and action derivation but also leads to more relevant content being served to users. 
For the implementation of Server Side Tagging in the course of migration to GA4, the big advantage here is also the cross-platform consent solution: Server Side Tagging for GA4 can be integrated into any channel - on websites, in apps, smartwatches, etc. - so a company gets more consistent data and can incorporate better automation solutions. In general, automating processes across multiple platforms becomes easier with GA4, as GA4's machine learning technologies take linking to a new level. GA4 offers good opportunities for modeling data or even tracking in Web3 environments. Tracking in the metaverse? With Universal Analytics this was not imaginable. With the functionality of GA4 it is more likely. 
Finally, a practical example of what GA4 does better than Universal Analytics: The whole issue around sessions is better solved in GA4 than before. While Google Analytics used to have quite confusing rules for recording a session and e.g. a session that goes from 23:59 to 00:07 was tracked as two sessions, in the future it will be quite simple: the session starts when the page is opened and ends when the user leaves - even if this might go beyond midnight, a user is active on the page for a long time or comes via different campaigns. The maximum (7:55 hours) and minimum (0 minutes) session duration as well as the definition of an "active" session can be customized in GA4. Not bad, right?

To sum up:

We know that there is a lot of excitement about GA4 and of course it is always a shock at first to be left without an alternative when a well-known tool is simply discontinued - but fortunately it is not like that at all in this case! Migrating to GA4 definitely requires more than a little clicky clicky here and there, but we see the possibility of being able to use the data more extensively than ever before as a big win. Data literacy will inevitably increase with the use of Google Analytics 4, and at the same time, companies will have a more focused view of their data, as the question of what should actually be analyzed must always be at the center. With the appropriate preparation, openness and the right partners at your side, the switch from UA to GA4 and the focus on serverside tracking is not as difficult as it sounds at first - we promise!