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GA4 Basics for Beginners: Get the Information You Need!

Let's face it. Google Analytics 4 is not the easiest platform to jump into, especially for beginners utilizing analytics for the first time or for the beginner SEO who's trying to understand their traffic and events to determine where they should start with actionable decisions.

This guide aims to provide a basic understanding of how to navigate GA4, and extract useful information about website traffic, events, organic traffic, traffic sources, and more. Let's start with understanding the differences between the older Universal Analytics(UA), and GA4.

The Differences of UA and GA4

There are an insane amount of differences between the two platforms, but we're going to focus on the basics for now. Lets dive in.

Different Data Models

UA operates on a session-based model, focusing on website sessions and page views.  GA4, however, operates on an event-based model, making it more flexible in tracking user interactions. GA4 also uses machine learning data to track user and behavior patterns across multiple devices.

difference between UA and GA4 by Shiftweb

Image source: Shiftweb

UA has its predefined metrics and dimensions.GA4 uses a more flexible approach, allowing for event modifications without altering the tracking code. GA4 has some “out of the box” events like “first visit”, “page view”, “file downloads” and more which gets you started on tracking user and traffic data immediately.

UA uses "Bounce Rate" as a metric, which is calculated when users visit only one page on your site and then exit. GA4 doesn't use Bounce Rate. Instead, it measures "Engagement Rate," which is based on events such as scrolling, clicking, or staying on the site for a certain amount of time.

User Interface Differences

The UA interface is divided into several tabs and sections that are generally easy to navigate. GA4 sports a redesigned interface, with a focus on simplicity and customization. However, this might make it a bit challenging to adapt to if you're accustomed to UA.

There are 4 main tabs in GA4 on the left side.

GA4 tabs

"Home" Tab

The Home tab in GA4 gives you an at-a-glance view of key metrics and trends on your site. It's a dashboard that offers a snapshot of information like user count, engagement metrics, demographics, and recent trends. It's a great starting point to get a broad overview of your site's performance.

GA4 overview report

"Reports" Tab

The Reports tab is the heart of your data analysis. It's divided into several sections - Realtime, Lifecycle, User, Events, and more. Each section provides a deeper dive into specific aspects of your data. For instance, the Lifecycle section contains Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization, and Retention reports, providing a holistic view of your user's journey from their first interaction with your site to their eventual conversion or drop-off.

GA4 reports snapshot

"Explore" Tab

The Explore tab is where you can create and customize your data analysis. This section features advanced analysis techniques such as funnel analysis, path analysis, and segmentation. It's a powerful tool for users who want to go beyond the standard reports and gain more nuanced insights from their data.

GA4 explorer report

"Advertising" Tab

The Advertising tab is where you can view data related to your Google Ads campaigns. It provides reports that connect your Google Ads spend with the actions users take on your site or app. This can be extremely helpful for evaluating the effectiveness of your paid marketing efforts and understanding the ROI of different campaigns. Note: This requires you to link your Google Ads account with your GA4 property.

GA4 advertising Tab

User Interface Similarities

GA4 and UA share some user interface similarities at a basic level that can help you quickly navigate to important data when comparing different time frames, metrics or dimensions.

Date Range Comparison

Both GA4 and UA allow users to compare two distinct date ranges. This is useful for comparing performance over time. In both interfaces, you'll find the date range selector at the top right of the screen. You can select a date range and then check the "Compare to" box to select a comparison period.

GA4 calendar for comparison data

Comparison Conditions

GA4 and UA both allow you to build comparison conditions in reports. This feature enables you to segment and compare data based on different criteria like demographics, user behavior, traffic source, etc. In GA4, you can create these using the 'Add Comparison' feature, typically located near the top of each view.

GA4 comparison filters

Let's consider a scenario where you want to compare the performance of two of your top traffic sources, say "Organic Search" and "Direct."

Here's how to set it up:

  1. Navigate to your GA4 property and go to "Reports."

  2. Click on "Acquisition," then "Traffic Acquisition."

  3. On this screen, you'll see a table showing different dimensions, one of which is "Session default channel group" (your traffic sources).

  4. Above the table, click on "+ Compare."

  5. In the "Add Comparison" pop-up:

  • For the first comparison, you might select "Session default channel group" and then type or select "Organic Search" into the corresponding field, then click "Apply."

  • Repeat the process to add a second comparison, but this time type "Direct" in the field.

Now you have a side-by-side comparison of "Organic Search" and "Direct" traffic right in your Traffic Acquisition report. This includes comparisons of Users, Sessions, and more.

Understanding and Finding Data & Events

An event in GA4 can be any user interaction with content that can be tracked independently from a web page or a screen load (custom events can also be tracked, which we cover in a different section below). 

This includes clicks, user-generated downloads, video plays, page views etc.

To view event data: Navigate to "Reports" > "Engagement" > "Events." Here, you can view the top events that occurred on your site within a given timeframe.

Event breakdown: Click on a specific event to see more details about that event.

GA4 event data breakdown

How to Look Up Organic Traffic Metrics

Organic traffic in GA4 refers to visitors that land on your website as a result of unpaid ("organic") search results.

To view organic traffic: Navigate to "Reports" > "Acquisition" > "Traffic Acquisition." Here, you’ll see a breakdown of traffic sources. Look for "Organic Search" in the "Medium" column.

GA4 organic traffic breakdown

Determining Traffic Source

Traffic sources provide information about where your website traffic comes from.

To find traffic source: Navigate to "Reports" > "Acquisition" > "Traffic Acquisition." You'll see a table of traffic sources and mediums, or by “default channel group”.

Understanding traffic sources: Traffic sources could be a search engine (Google, Bing), a referral from another website, social networks, direct (users typing your URL), or other. Mediums are the categories of the source and typically include "organic," "referral," "none" (for direct traffic), "cpc" (cost per click), etc.

GA4 traffic sources

Search Bar

The search bar at the top of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is designed to help you quickly find reports, insights, and settings within your GA4 property. This makes navigation much easier, especially if you're not yet familiar with the new layout or if you're managing complex websites with lots of data.

GA4 search bar usage

You can use the search bar to find various elements in GA4. Here are some examples:

  1. Reports: You can search for specific reports by their names. For example, if you type "User Acquisition," GA4 will display the User Acquisition report in the dropdown suggestions.

  2. Insights: GA4's automated insights feature can provide you with key information about your data. You can search for these insights directly. For instance, if you type "insights" in the search bar, GA4 will display a list of insights that the system has generated. You can even ask simple questions like “Where did my users come from?” or “What is my organic traffic?”

  3. Settings: If you need to adjust a specific setting but you're not sure where to find it, you can use the search bar. For instance, you can search for "tracking info" to find tracking settings, or "user management" to find the settings for managing users.

  4. Analysis Techniques: If you're looking to perform a specific type of analysis, you can search for it directly. For example, you could search for "Funnel analysis" or "Cohort analysis" to quickly find the respective exploration templates.

  5. Help Articles: If you're not sure how to perform a certain task or need more information about a feature, you can search for help articles directly from the search bar. For instance, searching for "how to create a new view" would pull up help articles related to that topic.

In essence, the search bar in GA4 acts as a shortcut, allowing you to access important reports, settings, and features quickly and easily.

How to Find Data on Individual Pages

By following these steps, you can utilize the filter options in the Reports section of GA4 to narrow down your analysis and obtain information specifically related to a particular page or URL within your website.

  1. Go to the Reports section: In GA4, the Reports section provides preconfigured reports with various metrics and dimensions. Click on the "Reports" option in the left-hand navigation menu.

  2. Select the desired report: Choose a report that contains the information you need. For example, if you want to analyze page-related data, select the "Engagement>Landing Page" Report

  3. Apply the URL filter: Once you're in the selected report, look for the filter options. In GA4, the filters are typically located above the report's data. Find the filter related to URLs or page dimensions (such as "Page path") and click on it to open the filter settings.

  4. Specify the URL or page criteria: In the filter settings, enter the URL or specific criteria related to the page you want to analyze. You can enter the full URL or use patterns to match multiple URLs. For example, you can use "/blog/" to filter all URLs containing "/blog/" in the path.

  5. Apply the filter: After specifying the URL or page criteria, click on the "Apply" or "Filter" button to apply the filter to the report.

Analyze the filtered data: The report will now display data specifically for the filtered URL or page. You can explore various metrics, dimensions, and visualizations to gain insights into the performance and user behavior related to the specific page.

How to Compare UA and GA4 Data

When Google released GA4, they completely changed the way data is collected, processed, and presented. Comparing Universal Analytics data with GA4 data isn't straightforward. They essentially track different metrics and are designed to give you different insights, though there are some common metrics that both platforms utilize (sessions for example).

Common Metrics 

Compare common metrics across both platforms. Here are a few key metrics and their counterparts:

  • UA's "Users" is similar to GA4's "Users".

  • UA's "New Users" is similar to GA4's "New Users".

  • UA's "Sessions" is somewhat similar to GA4's "Sessions". Note that a session in GA4 is a group of user interactions with your website that take place within a given time frame.

  • UA's "Pageviews" is similar to GA4's "Page Views".

  • UA's "Avg. Session Duration" can be compared to GA4's "Engagement Time".

Remember that even these "similar" metrics might not match up completely because of differences in how the data is collected and processed. We can take this understanding and open each version of Google Analytics in two different windows and compare metrics directly.

Side-by-Side Comparison with Looker Studio

This is a powerful tool by Google for data visualization and business intelligence. You can connect both GA4 and UA data sources to Looker Studio, then create custom reports and dashboards. It allows you to visualize both GA4 and UA data side-by-side and even create blended data sources.

Google Sheets with Google Analytics add-on 

This Google add-on allows you to access, analyze, and visualize data from Google Analytics in Google Sheets. You can create separate reports for GA4 and UA data and use Sheets' functions to compare the data.

Third-party Tools 

There are several third-party tools that offer advanced analytics features and could possibly assist in comparing GA4 and UA data. Some of these include Tableau, Domo, Power BI, etc. However, their effectiveness would depend on their specific features and the nature of your requirements.

Using “Explorations” to Build Custom Reports

In Google Analytics 4, Explorations is a powerful feature that enables users to conduct deep and custom analysis of their data. It offers a flexible, dynamic interface where you can drag and drop different variables to create customized tables, charts, and graphs. This feature is especially useful when you want to go beyond the standard reports and perform more complex analysis.

GA4 explorations

There are several types of templates you can use in Explorations, each designed for a specific type of analysis. These include:

  1. Free Form: This is the most flexible template, allowing you to build your exploration from scratch.

  2. Funnel Analysis: This template is designed for analyzing a series of steps towards a goal, like the steps a user takes before making a purchase.

  3. Segment Overlap: This template helps you understand how different segments of your audience intersect.

  4. Path Analysis: This template is used to visualize the paths users take through your website or app, helping you understand user journeys.

  5. User Explorer: This template provides a detailed view of the behavior of individual users.

  6. Cohort Analysis: This template allows you to compare the behavior and metrics of different groups of users related by common attributes.

By selecting the template that fits your analysis needs, you can more effectively delve into your data and extract valuable insights.

Here is a step-by-step guide to creating a "free form" exploration report in Google Analytics 4 that tracks outbound link clicks.

  1. Navigate to the “Explore” Section: Start by logging into your Google Analytics 4 account, and navigating to GA4’s “Explore” section.

  2. Select the Free Form Exploration Template: Click the 'Explore' tab in the left sidebar menu. Then, select 'Free form' from the template list to the right. You can also start with the 'Blank' template to create a free form report​​.

  3. Choose the Variables for your Report: You’ll notice two columns on the left of the report display: Variables and Tab Settings. In the Variables column, you’ll choose all of the variables that you want in your report. Variables include Segments, Dimensions, and Metrics. Here, you should also give your custom report a new name by typing it into the 'Exploration Name' field​.

  4. Define the Tab Settings: In the Tab Settings column, you define the style of the report and what it contains. You will drag and drop segments, dimensions, and metrics from the Variables column here to create your report​.

  5. Pick a Date Range: Choose a date range for your report. The default shows you the past 30 days, but you can change this to display any time period you like​​.

  6. Select Segments (Optional): Segments in GA4 are a way of defining traffic sources, based on device, location, or other criteria. If you want to filter your report by segment, drag one of the Segments from the Variables tab to the Segment Comparisons area​.

  7. Choose Dimensions: You’ll add any dimensions you want to include in your report. To track outbound link clicks, you should add the following dimensions:

  • Link classes

  • Link domain

  • Link ID

  • Link text

  • Link URL

  • Outbound 

Drag and drop these dimensions from the Variables tab to the Rows area.

  1. Choose Metrics: Now, you’ll select the metrics that you want to see for your dimensions. Add 'Event count' under Metrics and drag it under Values in the Tab Setting column.

  2. Select Filters (Optional): If you want, you can also add filters to further refine your report data. This is optional and not necessary for tracking outbound link clicks.

  3. Save and View the Report: Custom reports in GA4 are automatically saved as soon as you create them. To view your previously created reports, just click back on the 'Explore' tab in the main GA4 menu. You’ll see the list of all available custom exploration reports. Click a report name to view or edit​​.

GA4 exploration example

Event Creation Methods in GA4

The creation of custom events has been made to be straightforward and code-free as well. To build a custom event directly in GA4, navigate to your property, select "Events" in the left-hand menu, then click "Create Event". From here, you can set your event parameters, including the name and conditions for the event.

The "Modify Event" option allows you to adjust predefined parameters or create new ones. However, it's essential to know that these changes will only apply to future data.

Events can also be created by using Google Tag Manager (GTM). GTM provides more flexibility and control over the triggers and variables that dictate when your custom events should be fired.

Within GTM, you can create a new tag of the type 'GA4 Event' and define the event name, parameters, and the triggering conditions. After setting up and testing the tag in GTM, publish the changes, and the custom events will start appearing in your GA4 property. This provides an additional layer of control and customizability, especially for advanced users.

Exporting Universal Analytics Data

UA data unfortunately cannot be imported to GA4 as its two very different data models (session based model vs. event based model). You'll be able to keep legacy UA data to reference at any time within the UA analytics instance up until July 1 2024, though after that date it will be permanently removed

What's unfortunate is that BigQuery Export is only available for Google Analytics 360 customers in regards to universal analytics. This is a paid version of the platform that runs through a vendor and it can be very costly. 

There are a couple ways we can export this data though, either by CSV on individual reports that we'd like or, Reporting APIs to Cloud storage and connecting to Looker Studio.

Note: we have some tips on exporting UA data as well.

Here are some top-level metrics you might consider exporting:

  • Users: This includes both new and returning users.

  • Sessions: Total number of sessions along with average session duration.

  • Pageviews: Total pageviews and unique pageviews.

  • Bounce Rate: This metric is not directly available in GA4 but it is a commonly used metric in UA.

  • Channels/Traffic Sources: Breakdown of your traffic by source/medium. (direct traffic, organic traffic, referral traffic, etc.)

  • Event Data: Any key events you are tracking like clicks, form submissions, downloads, etc.

  • Goal Completions: Any defined conversions or goals and their completion rates.

  • Audience Data: Information about your users, such as demographics and interests.

Ensure that you're exporting data over meaningful time frames so that you can compare monthly, quarterly, and yearly trends.

What Data Expires in GA4?

If you’re wondering if it’s possible to show GA4 data that is older than the 14-month threshold, the good news is that it’s possible. However, not without certain limitations for your user data.

You can view the data that is older than 14 months but only for aggregated and custom reports. However, if you want to show explorations reports data, you cannot go beyond 14 months in history. funnels, pathing, cohort analysis and other user-focused reports will only show up to 14 months worth of data.

Every time a user comes back to our site, these 14 months are applied from that date onwards. That means as long as the user keeps coming back within those 14 months, the user's data will never be removed. However, for any users that don't show up on the site for 14 months, their data is automatically deleted.

Additional Resources and Next Steps

GA4 is wildly different from UA and the GA4 interface itself is less than ideal for navigation and user-friendliness. However, as an SEO or marketer in general that wants to understand basic analytics quickly, its fairly easy to navigate following the steps above.

You can look at these other great additional resources for learning more about filtering the data you need and understanding Google Analytics 4 better.

As we write more analytics based articles, we'll be sure to include those here!



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