The Complete Comparison between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4: Everything You Need to Know About the Upgrade

By April 26, 2023November 21st, 2023No Comments8 min read

If you are working in the digital marketing field, you might have heard the name “Google Analytics (GA)”. It is a web analytics tool offered by Google that helps collect data, such as website traffic and user behavior. Currently, there are 2 versions available for use – Universal Analytics (UA or GA3) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

According to Google’s announcement, Universal Analytics will sunset on the 1st of July, 2023, which means no more data will be processed since that period. This automatically forces Universal Analytics users to migrate to Google Analytics 4.

But no worries! Before Google Analytics 4 completely replaces Universal Analytics from this half-year-end, there’s still time to explore and get ready!🙂 This article will highlight some key differences between the two properties to help you understand what changes and upgrades have been made by focusing on the web analytics case!

From Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4

Universal Analytics first launched as a beta version in 2012 and later opened to the public in 2013. As of today, it has been over 10 years since its debut. However, in 2020, Google officially introduced the next generation of Google Analytics – Google Analytics 4.

Timeline for the transition of Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.Google Analytics 4 has mainly been designed to enhance measurement capability and address the limitations of Universal Analytics. For example, it allows data collection from both websites and apps; eliminating the need for separate platforms for Google Analytics 4 and Firebase. Also, it emphasizes customer privacy and includes predictive features.

6 Major differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4

1. Data collection model

One of the most significant changes from Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the shift in data collection. GA4 is focusing on capturing event-based data instead of session-based data like it’s been in UA. This gives more flexibility in tracking the user journey

For UA, you might be familiar with multiple forms of hits (specific interactions of users on the website), such as page hits, event hits, eCommerce hits, and social interaction hits but here in GA4, every hit type will be captured as an event, allowing for more granular tracking

The transition of session-based data to event-based data from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.Besides, the way event data has been stored differs between the two properties. In UA, the report has been displayed in the form of Category, Action Label, and Value, while GA4 doesn’t follow the same data schema and displays all data in terms of events, based on the new data model.

New data model from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.Another distinction in the data model is the processing time. UA hits take roughly 4 hours to proceed (however, from my experience, it’s faster than that) but events in GA4 process slowly and may take up to 72 hours. So, when viewing the report on GA4, please keep in mind that data might be delayed.

2. User and Session calculating method

If you have migrated to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) but still use Universal Analytics (UA), you may have noticed that the number of users and sessions in both properties don’t match. This is due to the difference in data models and how each property defines its metrics.

For users, UA counts the number of users based on cookies and client ID (1 ID represents 1 user or 1 device). For example, if a person enters your website three times but across different devices, the number of users reporting to UA will be three. On the other hand, the number of users displayed on GA4 will be one since it’s calculated based on User ID which is data from Logging in Google Account. Thus, the GA4 model is trying to capture data more accurately and on point

The shift from client IDs to user ID from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.For sessions, both UA and GA4 have similarities in counting sessions but are also different in some aspects. Both initiate counting when users enter the website page and consider the session ends by default after 30 minutes of inactivity. GA4 automatically generates both session ID and session number when the session starts

What’s different is that GA4 won’t create new sessions if the campaign source changes during sessions or the sessions cross a day boundary (at midnight), while the UA session covers all these circumstances. This may result in a lower session count in GA4.

Reduced session count after migrating from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.3. Data retention

The data retention period is one of the big differences since in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) you can store event data for a maximum of 14 months, with age, gender, and interest data having a limit of 2 months. This is unlike Universal Analytics (UA) where event data can be retained indefinitely.

Reduced in data retention from an indefinite period to a maximum of 14 months from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4. However, it’s worth noting that the data retention policy only applies if you want to create in-depth reporting from the exploration feature in GA4. Other than that, you are still able to view the report beyond the 14-month periods on standard reporting.

Standard reporting and in-depth reporting on Google Analytics 4.Thus, it’s important to be aware of this change, especially for marketers who usually create in-depth reports or long-term analysis reports.

Additionally, by default, GA4 set the data retention period to 2 months. If you want to keep data for a longer period, you probably need to change it yourself by going to ‘Admin’-> Under Property column select ‘Data settings’ -> select ‘Data Retention’ -> select ‘14 months’-> ‘Save’.

Steps to change data retention in GA4.However, please keep in mind that once you change the period, the change will not be retroactive and you’ll have to wait for new data to get stored. Then it’s recommended to start early if you want to store data for a more extended period.

4. Bounce rate to Engagement rate

Normally to measure site engagement, in Universal Analytics (UA) you probably focus on Bounce rate which is the percentage of all sessions on your website in which users viewed only a single-page web. Nevertheless, this can be ineffective in some cases because if users view one page, for example, read the article, and leave the website, it’s still considered a bounce session – even if the user engages with your website by reading.

New bounce session and engaged session model in Google Analytics 4.To address this issue Google Analytics 4 (GA4) introduced the Engagement rate by aiming to measure user interaction with your website more accurately – no matter if users only visit one page on the site. The engagement rate is derived from engaged sessions divided by total sessions. To be counted as engaged sessions, the user needs to meet one of these criteria following:

  • Last active for 10 seconds or longer
  • Has one or more conversion events fired (To measure with this criteria, you first need to set your conversion in GA4 property)
  • Involve two or more pageviews

Any session that doesn’t meet these criteria will be considered a bounce session.

Google Analytics definition of engaged session.By the new definition of the engagement session, I also agree that it helps measure how users engage with the website page more accurately and on point in keeping with its name.

5. Integration with BigQuery

One of the benefits you will get from Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the free integration of BigQuery. Previously in Universal Analytics (UA), this feature is only available to customers who subscribe paid plan, Google Analytics 360. It used to be huge gaps between the free version and paid version but right now it’s free to use. You’re able to export data to BigQuery and utilize data to further analyze and gain insight.

Free integration with BigQuery with Google Analytics 4 while a paid version of Universal Analytics is needed to integrate with it.From my point of view, the free integration with BigQuery could be a replacement for the data retention policy, which has been shortened in GA4 compared to UA as discussed in point number 3.

6. Custom report

One notable contrast between the two generations of Google Analytics is a custom report. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) offers a wider range of customizable report options, each has been designed to serve specific analytics purposes, for example, funnel analysis, user journey analysis, and individual behavior analysis. In contrast, Universal Analytics (UA) provides only two primary options for custom reporting – a general custom report and a dashboard

Wider range of custom reporting from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.I feel that the interface of the report in GA4 is more modern and user-friendly. Especially the drag-and-drop feature as it allows you to view the report immediately after dropping the metric/dimension, compared to UA where you need to select metrics and dimensions first, save them, and then view the report.

However, due to the wide range of report options in GA4, you might need time to get familiar with them and know which type of report can address your specific needs.

Then what should be the next step for you if you’re still using Universal Analytics and have not migrated to Google Analytics 4?

As there’s still time before Universal Analytics (UA) stops processing data, I suggest you use both Universal Analytics (UA) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in parallel. This way, you can familiarize yourself with the new feature and user interface of GA4 before the cut-off date on July 1st, 2023.

According to a Google update, since the beginning of March 2023, if you haven’t already created the GA4 property, Google will create one for you based on your setting in UA, unless you choose to opt out.

It’s essential to keep in mind that once the cut-off date arrives, data will stop reporting in UA. However, access to reports will still be available for at least the next six months after the cut-off date. You can further find information on how long UA will remain available after the first of July, 2023 by checking here

Future timeline for the transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.Now it’s your turn! 😀, I’d love to hear from you how this article is useful and easy to understand for you. Also If you have any related questions or are interested in our BI services, feel free to contact us via email at We’ll be more than happy to help.

Key differences summary between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4.

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