The Clock is Ticking on Universal Analytics

And there are two critical issues every organisation needs to deal with

Most of you already know that Google is “retiring” the Universal Analytics (UA) platform as of July 1, 2023. Google’s been slowly pushing for organisations to switch to the “new” analytics platform, now called Google Analytics 4 (GA4) since late 2019 and has finally given us some hard dates for 2023.

There are two key drivers for this change. First, usage of websites and apps is significantly different than it was ten years ago and session-based tracking is an increasingly poor measure. Second, increased focus on privacy concerns including the elimination of third-party cookies means session-based tracking is also increasingly inaccurate. GA4’s event-based structure addresses both of these issues.

The switch from UA to GA4 creates two major problems that all organisations need to grapple with now and in the coming months. First and foremost, if you haven’t already implemented GA4 on your site you need to do it urgently. You need to do this because starting in July 2023 you’ll have no year over year data to compare up until the point where you started GA4. Every day that goes by right now is another day you’ll have to wait next year before you have YoY data so immediately and urgently get your web teams to set up GA4 and run it concurrently with your existing UA account.

If you’re thinking everybody has already done this you’re in for a surprise. We run a quick analysis of destinations in Aotearoa and it turns out 40% haven’t implemented GA4. The stats are even worse when looking at NTOs and tourism businesses across the South Pacific.

If you’re in that 40%, you need to take action as soon as possible to get GA4 set up on your site(s). If you’re in the 60%… good job – but you’re not off the hook!

The second major issue here is everybody is going to lose access to all UA historical data sometime after the end of 2023. Data collection for UA stops on July 1, 2023 but you can still access your UA reports for “at least six months.” It’s not clear when they’ll shut down UA completely but they’re encouraging everyone to export historical data during this six month period. If history is any indication, that date will probably get extended – but we strongly encourage you to come up with a plan and execute it within that six months just to be safe.

The tricky bit is – export what? and to where? You can’t migrate UA data to GA4, the data models are completely different. You can export a bunch of PDFs of monthly reports, but that’s not how most of us use analytics. Most of us are using GA as a query tool to explore specific slices of data about our sites and apps, e.g. “during this specific time frame how many conversions did this specific audience complete from this specific page.” That’s not the kind of thing you can export to PDFs.

Right now you’re asking “can’t I export the data and query it elsewhere?” Yes… you can but you’re talking about a lot of data, and it’s not constructed in a way that makes it easily queryable. There is a migration path to put your historical GA data into Big Query – Google’s Data Warehousing platform – and Miles, like lots of other vendors, is working on processes and tools to help our clients do that. Some, like Supermetrics have outlined a “public” schema for exporting and storing GA data. See SuperMetrics here for details. You’ll get the idea that this isn’t a simple copy/paste operation.

Even with it exported to something like Big Query, you’ll still have to build your own interface in order to interact with it. No doubt, there will be data studio reports available for download that will make it easier to interact with the data, particularly if you followed one of the common export schemas, but it’s still a lot of complex data to have to manage. If you’re a large organisation, maybe this approach works for you. But smaller orgs probably won’t probably have access to that historical data starting sometime after January of 2024.

Losing your historical data isn’t necessarily as dire as it seems. The way we track and measure website performance is drastically different than it was 10 years ago, and as I noted at the beginning the data is increasingly unreliable. You’ve probably seen massive swings in your own analytics data just in the last few months – the result of several significant changes by Apple. So historical data is probably not the kind of thing you really need to access every day or even every month.

What you really need to think about now is what are the kinds of questions you would need historical data to answer down the track. Use the next 18 months to identify what activities and decisions benefit from historical analytics data and note them down so you have a map to guide what you export after July 2023.

Here are a few examples to get you started thinking. What kinds of content had the highest engagement with users? That could be really valuable information when you’re planning new content, or looking at building a new site. What are your key sources of organic traffic – you’ll need that broken down by source. At minimum you probably want to think about exporting data from these reports:

  • Acquisition / All Traffic / Channels
  • Behaviour / Site Content / All Pages
  • Behaviour / Events / Top Events – Category, Action & Label (if events are used)
  • Conversion / Goals / Overview – do this for each priority goal

Of course, what’s important to your organisation is necessarily going to be different, just make sure you and your team are paying attention to the situations where you lean on historical data in the coming months, and use that information to plan how and what you’ll migrate.

In summary, if you haven’t implemented GA4 on your sites already – do that now. Even if you have, be thinking about what kinds of historical data you’ll want to save out of Universal Analytics after July 1, 2023.

As always, If you have questions or need help with any of this Miles has experts that can support you, even if you’re not currently one of our web clients.

Written by CA Clark

August 18, 2022

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