Google Analytics, the popular web analytics tool by Google, has been a go-to choice for many businesses and website owners to track user behavior and gain insights. In fact, it is what I have been recommending to clients for over a decade and has worked well for myself and all clients from basic sites to advanced e-commerce sites with detailed tracking. However, Google recently announced the sunsetting of Universal Analytics (UA) which we have become accustomed to, and are requiring a complete migration to Google Analytics 4 (GA4).
To cut to the chase: You absolutely need to migrate to a new option very soon and AshWebStudio can help. In this article, I discuss the timeline, reasons for the transition, benefits and downsides of GA4, and address privacy concerns, including the tool’s legality in the EU. Finally, we’ll explore some alternative analytics tools worth considering.
Timeline for the Transition
UA will officially stop working on July 1, 2023 and no more data will be recorded if you are still using this version of Google Analytics. The data stored in your UA account will be available for approximately 6 months thereafter but then completely inaccessible thereafter. This means you must switch to GA4 or an alternative by this deadline.
Why is Google forcing this update to GA4?
The move towards GA4 has been primarily driven by shifts in user privacy expectations, advances in machine learning, and the need for a more user-centric and event-driven approach to data collection. Basically, Google feels they needed to completely redo everything about Google Analytics in order to build for the future.
Analytics, Privacy & GDPR – Why it matters to you
Website analytics helps website owners track who is visiting their site, where they came from, and what they are doing in order to make business decisions. To track this data, Personally Identifiable Information (PII) about the user is collected such as their location, which pages they visited in a single session, and more. In recent years, privacy concerns have become increasingly more important because of the European Union and GDPR regulations. So now tracking some of this PII can actually violate the EU’s GDPR privacy rules for any website that is accessible to an EU citizen – even US business websites. In fact, while rare, there are businesses in the US being sued by the EU for violating GDPR because Google Analytics (both UA and GA4) has essentially been ruled illegal in the EU.
Benefits of Google Analytics 4:
- Enhanced Privacy: GA4 addresses user privacy by offering more control over data collection, anonymizing IP addresses by default, and supporting consent-based tracking. But to be clear, GA4 is not fully GDPR compliant.
- Event-driven Approach: GA4’s event-based data model simplifies tracking user interactions across platforms and devices.
- Advanced Analysis: GA4 incorporates machine learning to predict user behavior and identify trends, enabling better decision-making.
- Improved Cross-platform Tracking: GA4’s ability to track users across multiple devices and platforms provides a more comprehensive view of the customer journey.
Downsides of Google Analytics 4:
- Learning Curve: The new interface, data model, and reporting structure in GA4 may require a significant learning curve for users accustomed to Universal Analytics.
- Limited Historical Data: GA4 doesn’t automatically import historical data from Universal Analytics, potentially causing gaps in long-term trend analysis.
- Missing Features: Some features, such as custom dimensions and metrics, are not yet available or have changed significantly in GA4.
- Need Cookie Consent Popups: Sites using GA for and serving EU users will at minimum need a cookie consent popup on their site that ask the user to opt-in to tracking. 3rd party services are available for monthly fees that serve these consent trackers only to EU users but add an additional cost for your website.
Should I keep using Google Analytics?
First and foremost, AshWebStudio is not legal counsel as there are legal considerations to be had.
Every business, regardless of location, needs to consider GDPR rules and understand that GA4 is not fully GDPR compliant. It can, however, be configured to be quite close to compliant and in the gray areas of the GDPR privacy laws.
However, our opinion is the risk is incredibly low for most of our clients. US businesses being sued for GDPR violations are very large businesses with a global presence. Whether to continue using Google Analytics with GA4 will most likely come down to the features it has and if it will be the best fit for your business marketing needs.
At AshWebStudio, we took a wait-and-see approach for as long as we could in the hopes that Google would recognize the issues caused by this forced migration, most notably not making data available. However, it seems they never decided to take this feedback from a significant portion of their user base and make changes before the deadline. As such, we have evaluated many other options, in addition to GA4, to better understand what to recommend to clients before the deadline happens.
UA Google Analytics has been a great, free option for website owners for a very long time. However, this has made us accustomed to having our website data at no cost. The following options are all privacy-focused, meaning they are GDPR-compliant analytics, do not require any cookie consent popups, and will offer the important metrics for your business website.
Our Google Analytics alternative recommendations:
- Beam Analytics: Offers a free version for up to 100k page views (most of our clients fit within this range) with very reasonable pricing for larger sites. This alternative option is the most appealing to us and we partnered with the team at Beam to make a free Beam WordPress plugin and premium version for those looking for advanced integrations and event tracking.
- Independent Analytics: A free WordPress plugin offering all the basic, important analytics a website owner needs. Premium options are available for integrations with WooCommerce and other advanced features.
Other options to consider
The following options are great analytic tools, however, none have a free option or have integrations available with popular WordPress form or e-commerce plugins to meet advanced tracking needs.
- Plausible Analytics – Allows import of data from Google Analytics for a full historical record on a single platform
- Simple Analytics – Allows import of data from Google Analytics for a full historical record on a single platform
- Fathom Analytics – No data import available
What is the best analytics option for me?
Like anything, it depends. We believe using Google Analytics 4 will still be a fine choice for many of our clients. It is still free and can get the basic information you need once you figure out their admin system. If you are working with us for more advanced marketing like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or paid advertising, we’ll be doing the more heavy lifting of using the advanced reporting tools that most people find challenging. However, we do find the alternative options much easier to get the basic data most clients need on a regular basis to gauge website performance and success.
Feel free to contact us to discuss your website analytics and what would be the right option for you.