In Analytics, Google, Tech Trends

Web Analytics is a critical marketing tool for almost every modern small business and since it was launched in 2005, Google Analytics has been that gold standard of analytics tools for small businesses. Not only was it an easy to use, full featured, and robust analytics platform, but it was also free. With Google’s transition from Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4 (GA4), however, there has been a major shakeup in this winning formula and small businesses everywhere are struggling with the adjustment.

To be clear, there are a lot of positive and necessary changes that come with Google Analytics 4, so this is by no means an indictment of Google’s newest generation of analytics. Here’s a short list of the many pros of GA4  

  • Increased Privacy for Website Users. Privacy and data security on the web are becoming more and more of a concern as technology evolves and proliferates. GA4 is much better suited than Universal Analytics in offering both you and your website visitors control over the data that is collected, but also is more adaptive to any upcoming privacy regulations which are sure to come. 
  • Google Analytics 4 Uses a Much More Modern Approach to Data Collection. Basically, GA4 is focused on users and their behavior rather than the session-oriented model that was Universal Analytics. This means that it will be easier to analyze user behavior not only through various events on your website, but also across various platforms – an awesome improvement to businesses having both an app and a website.
  • Google Analytics is More Adaptable and Future Proof. We talk a lot on our blog about how important it is to keep on top of changing technologies to ensure that your business can make informed and relevant strategy changes when advantageous. GA4 is by far a much more adaptable platform for whatever is around the corner in web technology.

But things aren’t all peachy as businesses make the transition to GA4. Here are some major challenges you need to be aware of:

Google is Severely Limiting How Long Your Website’s Historical Data is Being Retained. 

Far and away this has been the biggest challenge in adapting to GA4. Many businesses rely on this historic data to show lifetime business growth in order to get loans or grants, put the business up for sale, or to simply analyze their marketing strategies over the long haul, but with both a break in data streams between UA and GA4 and the loss in extended data retention, this is a huge challenge with unfortunately only a few possible solutions. 

The most cost effective and simplest way is to export individual reports out of Google Analytics as a PDF, CSV, Excel, or Google Sheets file. Of these options, we’d recommend opting for one of the spreadsheet options since this will allow you to dynamically interact with the data and make it very easy to plot on a graph or chart. Keep in mind however that this means a lot of hands-on labor and a tremendous amount of spreadsheet data if you have years of analytics data you wish to keep.

Another option is to use the Google Analytics Reporting API. Here you are basically pulling your website data out of Google Analytics and into a database. While this option gives you much more control over your reporting, it is a bit more complex than the export method above and there may be some expense involved depending on which tools you use.

Lastly, you could use BigQuery to export your data into Google Analytics 360, Google’s enterprise-level analytics tool geared for larger companies with bigger budgets. This is absolutely the most robust and feature rich option of the three, however, this is also the most technical option and requires paying for access to Google Analytics 360 – both being potential challenges to the average small business. If you do decide to go this route, Google offers a tutorial here

As a last point to the data retention issue, it should be noted that the data retention options for GA4 are currently 2 months and 14 months. If you want to ensure your retention is set for 14 months, in your GA4 property admin panel, go to “Data Settings” then “Data Retention” and make sure you hit “Save” once you’ve made your selection. 

Transitioning to Google Analytics 4 Comes with a Learning Curve 

Like any technological sea change, there is a degree of time and manpower allocation that will be required in making the shift to GA4. Because the platform is so new, there are currently not a lot of online resources yet offering those problem-solving tips and tricks that had developed over the many years Universal Analytics had been in use. Many businesses have been putting off the transition in the hope that there would be more information available online, but unfortunately there are still a lot of unanswered questions out there. This is one aspect that there really isn’t much you can do about except simply understand that there will be some necessary outlay in resources in making this change. 

There are Inherent Reporting Challenges with GA4 for Small Business Resource Budgets

This is almost a conglomeration of the first two points, but it comes from the most important perspective of web analytics: How are you going to report your traffic data to your marketing team, investors, and/or prospective business buyers without adding to your monthly budget?

There are some seemingly wonderful free reporting options like Google’s Looker Studio (formerly known as Data Studio), however the big fly in the ointment here is that data retention issue we discussed above. Currently, there just doesn’t seem to be an inexpensive (in terms of time, money, and/or technical expertise) method of accessing and visualizing the full history of your website data in an easy to use and comprehensive report. This is causing many businesses and digital marketing experts to look outside of Google Analytics for a better analytics solution.

But keep in mind that switching analytics platforms does not inexpensively fix the problem of data history loss. Without a considerable outlay in resources (again money, time, and/or technical expertise) you may still be starting from scratch with your analytics data history.

So What Does the Future of Google Analytics 4 Hold?

This is unfortunately hard to predict at this point. We are down to the wire in the data retention issue and it seems like Google is not going to offer a low budget or technically easy solution for small businesses to keep, access, and report on their historic website data. What is most interesting here is the fact that a major contributor to Google’s success and growth was Google Analytics. By giving top tier analytics away for free, Google was able to monitor web traffic on a very high percentage of websites for their own use which gave them incredible insight into the fundamentals of how users interact with the web, which in turn helped Google develop its incredible array of search algorithms to serve those users. If small business website owners abandon Google Analytics 4 for a better low-cost solution, it provides a big opportunity for Google’s search competitors to finally get their foot in the door. We are still waiting for signs however that there is something on par with Google Analytics in the works from those competitors.

If you have questions about your small business analytics or web marketing, please give us a call at (941) 548-9950 or reach out to us via our webform.

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