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Google Analytics 4 for eCommerce: The Bare Minimum

Google announced Universal Analytics (UA) will no longer process new data in standard properties beginning July 1, 2023, and that you should be moving to Google Analytics 4 (GA4). It’s not like the world is ending, right? But what does that mean for your business?

Google Analytics 4 for eCommerce: The Bare Minimum

For many businesses, Google Analytics is their main traffic info source. In fact, 56% of websites use Google Analytics. If you are among those using UA, the above announcement is a kind of a wake-up call. Yes, you still have time but don’t hit the snooze button. Prepare now to switch over to a GA4 property.

If you wanna continue using Google Analytics, that is.

What's The Difference Between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of guides and comparisons between the two and there are already a number of great posts, some of which are linked below in the further reading section. So here let me just point out the biggest differences.

Let’s start with the obvious one, the Reporting interface. The old reports and metrics you are used to in UA are not there anymore and you'll have to work hard to recreate them in the new GA4. By default, GA4 includes the Reports snapshot report, the Realtime report, the following report collections (Life cycle and User collections), and topics (uniquely collection-defined topics). When you want to analyze your data further, you can use Explorations and BigQuery (more on reports here).

What's The Difference Between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?

Besides the reporting interface, the biggest difference is in the measurement model that is used. In a way, UA was built for desktop web and independent sessions and cookie data while GA4 is built to help you understand your customers across many different touchpoints (web and app) with an event-based measurement model.

This means that in GA4 Events not Sessions are the building blocks. Every interaction from the user is an event and events contain parameters. In UA an event had a category, action, and label. In GA4 an event like page_view for example, contains the parameters like page_location (page URL), page_referrer (previous page URL), page_title etc. This fact alone is what makes simple UA > GA4 data porting not that easy and it is better to rethink data collection in the GA4 model from the ground up instead (I’ll talk about that a bit later).

Events in GA4 are grouped into 4 categories:

  • Automatically collected events – Events such as page_view, first_visit, session_start, etc. are automatically tracked when you install the GA4.
  • Enhanced Measurement events – Automatically tracked events such as scrolls, outbound clicks, video engagement, etc. that you can enable or disable depending on your needs.
  • Recommended Events – Industry type Google recommended events (think eCommerce).
  • Custom Events – Events (and parameters) that you can create and implement yourself.

Keep in mind that there are some limits to events in GA4 i.e. 40 characters max for event name, parameter name, and parameter value; up to 25 parameters per event, and no more than 500 uniquely named events in total.

Finally, the learning curve. I am not saying that UA is easier to learn. I am saying we all will need much more time to understand the new reports and make the mental switch to the new event-based model of GA4.

Key Benefits of Using GA4

Ok, so we know the main differences, what are the benefits of switching to GA4? As I mentioned above, to understand many of the benefits that come with GA4, you need to start thinking differently.

The way users behave today on the web is very different from just a couple of years ago. Today you might start a purchasing journey on your mobile app just to end up making a purchase after watching a YouTube review video on your laptop. Or you may open one tab in your browser looking to buy Spongebob Squarepants Socks, move to another tab to finish work, and then get back to your purchase tab.

The above behaviors are not easily tracked (if possible at all) in UA. On the other hand, GA4 is built for modern-day users' journeys and user engagement tracking. Using parameters to describe an event in detail instead of a simple categories-actions-labels model and tracking it across different devices opens many new options.

The above also opens up a possibility of creating a better-focused audience in your ads, thus better ROI on ad spend.

Then there is BigQuery integration, a feature previously available only to GA 380 customers (paid plans). This means that with GA4, everyone will be able to analyze terabytes of data, take advantage of the insights delivered by the platform’s machine-learning capabilities, and even stream data directly to BigQuery.

The single best benefit you can get from moving to GA4 is the chance to re-evaluate your tracking in a good way. A more in-depth talk about the GA4 benefits is here.

Setting Up a GA4 Property

You can either upgrade your current UA property (and define if they both collect the same events or not) or set up a completely new one. If you ask me, right now the best course of action would be to set up a new GA4 property with all the default events, run it in parallel with UA (managed with Google Tag Manager) and gradually improve tracking and events valuable to your business as the data pours in.

Setting Up a GA4 Property

On the other hand, I understand that for some businesses (especially eCommerce) breaking the habit is hard so porting UA events and goals is important. If that’s the case the biggest hurdle is documenting the UA events you want to keep and deciding on what the corresponding GA4 events will be. And recreating goals.

No ✋I am not gonna take you by the hand...

… and show you step-by-step how to set up GA4. The power of GA4 is in its ability to adjust it to each use case, meaning setups (and reports, for that matter) are going to be different. Instead, I urge you to get your hands dirty with the GA4 demo and the sample ecommerce website to play around with the events, dashboard, and available data reports.

Then head over to this YouTube list explaining the ins and outs of GA4 and, why not, learn how to set up GA4 with GTM in this Udemy course.

Worrying if your GTM will degrade your website performance? Don’t. Follow Håkon Gullord Krogh's advice on how to keep websites fast when loading Google Tag Manager.

Measuring eCommerce with GA4: Best Practices

With all of the above in mind writing a one-fit-all-use-cases guide about eCommerce GA4 implementation is nearly impossible. Instead, let’s talk about the best practices.

Use Google Tag Manager

There are two ways you can implement eCommerce tracking. Using a global site tag (gtag.js) or using Google Tag Manager (GTM). Also, you can, if you want, update your current UA setup to GA4 as we discussed already. The majority of schemas (like product details, currency, etc) are forward compatible and Google will translate your UA events to custom GA4 events. Keep in mind that due to forward compatibility only, you might end up breaking your current UA setup.

With all that being said, the best is running both in parallel via GTM.

Why? For one, gtag.js supports only several Google products while GTM supports so much more. On top of being really flexible and fairly easy to use by almost everyone on the team, not only devs. As for in parallel well you don't wanna mess and screw data do ya?

How? Well, setting up a GTM container alone is not enough, you’ll have to add two more dataLayer’s(objects used by GTM to pass information to tags) as explained here. Have a look at Simo Ahava's great blog post on GA4 via GTM for more clarity.

Monitor Events in DebugView

Troubleshoot events in real-time by enabling debug mode. You can do it in your app or a browser. For Chrome, for example, install the Google Analytics Debugger Chrome extension. Remember to add a 'debug_mode':true parameter to your gtag('config') or include the field 'debug_mode' = true in GA4.

Events in GA4

A lot of thought has to be put into GA4 events. Doing them the right way means a wealth of information about your customers and their behaviors but also your funnels and traffic sources.

If you are going down the “use old events road” as I mentioned before the biggest hurdle is documenting the UA events and recreating goals. Look for matching events i.e. check all event types in GA4 (Automatically collected events, Enhanced Measurement events, and Recommended Events), and if you don’t find a matching event, create a new custom event. Here is the problem: naming the event. The best way (for now) is to follow Google's examples because they already established a methodology for naming (actions that are being captured by the event should be the event name).

As for goals, Google offers a simple goals migration tool that allows you to quickly recreate eligible goals from your connected UA as conversion events in your GA4 property.

No matter if you are starting anew or moving from UA, create a list of the events, parameters, and user properties that you are using across all of your data streams for any and every future inquiry.

New Dimensions and Metrics

As of July 11th, 2022, Google introduced new dimensions and metrics that you are able to use in GA4. Actually, these are old ones with new definitions. Everyone's favorite bounce rate (what!?) is back but this time defined as the percentage of sessions that were not engaged sessions. Have a look at the rest of the changes here.

Data Retention Settings

While we’re talking about the GA4 setting and all that, by default, user event data in GA4 is retained for only 2 months. You can change that really easily.

Go to Settings > Data Settings > Data Retention > In Event data retention drop-down menu, and select 14 months.

GA4 Reporting

If you've set everything properly you should be able to see your ecommerce data in the Monetization reports but you can also create custom reports and explorations in Analytics. And there lies the biggest power of GA4 (and the biggest headache as well).

Admittedly, I still have a long way to go and find the best (if there is one) way to use/report data. So far I’ve found a couple of things to work well for me. Treat them as an intro to what GA4 is capable of delivering.

One. Say you are wondering how much organic traffic are you getting, how would you do that? 

Reports > Acquisition > Traffic acquisition, then choose Organic Search on the diagram, and once the page is loaded select Sessions source/medium as the Primary Dimension.

GA4: how much organic traffic are you getting report.

Two. Remember the Landing Page report in UA? Go to Reports > Engagements > Pages and Screens then hit Customize report in the right corner. Then choose Add dimension and find Landing Page. Click the Landing page again and set it as default. Keep in mind that if you hit the Save button you’ll use the previous Page and Screens setup. Instead, save it as a NEW report.

Three. Wonder what page converts well? Reports > Engagements > Pages and Screens holds conversions you track in GA4. Be sure to change Primary Dimension to Page path + query string.

GA4: Page conversions report.

Four. The exploration page offers eCommerce template reports that provide a quick data insight on Acquisition for example. Use variables to pinpoint data you may need. For example, remember Behavior flow in UA? Go to Explorations > Path Exploration first. Then by choosing what traffic segments, dimensions, and metrics to include in your visitor path analysis you’ll be able to see something similar to UA Behavior flow.

Five. You can connect GA4 with Google Data Studio and use one of the templates built for eCommerce reporting.

Alternatives?

What meant to be a part of this post became a post on its own. Yes, there are alternatives to Google Analytics and some are better and some are worse. One thing is certain, the days of Urchin and web server log file analytics to display the traffic information of the website in question are long gone.

Moving Forward

Expected GA4 step-by-step guide for eCommerce websites? Well, I am sorry to disappoint you but this is not that kind of blog post. A couple of reasons for that.

First, it will take time to fully understand the differences between UA and GA4 and to get used to and adopt them. Second, GA4 is still evolving and there are likely to be lots and lots of feature releases and updates. That means a lot of tests, trial, and error work is ahead of us all. Third, different business use cases require (should have) different GA4 setups.

I guess you can say that the change is the only constant you should be aware of in GA4. Still, the time to prep up for the move is now. The question is how ready are you to adopt the new now in the world of Google Analytics.

Further Reading

Dig even deeper into Google Analytics 4 with these:

Put Google Analytics 4 at the core of your measurement - https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9164320#071122&zippy=%2Creleases
Universal Analytics versus Google Analytics 4 data - https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9964640#zippy=%2Cin-this-article
GA4 vs UA: What is the difference? - https://www.optimizesmart.com/google-analytics-4-ga4-vs-universal-analytics-what-is-the-difference/ 
Search Console integration - https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/10737381 
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) Events Demystified - https://www.thyngster.com/google-analytics-4-events-demystified-ga4 
Implementation Guide For Events In Google Analytics 4 - https://www.simoahava.com/analytics/implementation-guide-events-google-analytics-4/
Learn GA4: Guides & Educational Resources - https://www.searchenginejournal.com/learn-ga4-top-guides/444569/ 
GA4 Frequently Asked Questions - https://www.freshegg.co.uk/analytics/ga4-frequently-asked-questions 
Explorations Reports - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_ygmXjB-U8
How To Connect Google Search Console To Google Analytics 4? - https://www.datadrivenu.com/how-to-connect-google-search-console-with-google-analytics-4/ 
GA3toGA4 - https://github.com/locomotive-agency/GA3toGA4