Google Analytics 4: Top 6 Things We've Learned

Google Analytics 4 is here, finally, and after several months of use the Tempest team has uncovered several tips, tricks and best practices — as well as pain points — DMOs should be aware of.

On July 1, 2023, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) became the default reporting solution offered by Google and began slowly sunsetting Universal Analytics properties over the span of several months that followed. While the initial arrival of Google Analytics 4 was met with reluctance, it has now become a part of daily life for destination marketing organizations across the globe.

In our time using Google Analytics 4, we’ve uncovered a few best practices — in addition to our initial set tips for DMOs — and overlooked features that should aid DMOs in their daily reporting needs.

DISCLAIMER: These insights are valid as of September 2023. Google Analytics 4 is an ever-changing product, so some of these tips, tricks and best practices, as well as our procedures, may change with the evolution of GA4 over time.

1. Universal Analytics is Still Alive… Sort Of

As of the publication of this blog, Universal Analytics (UA) properties are still processing data for a few of our destination partners. What seemed to be a hard stop on July 1, 2023 turned out to be more of a rolling sunset for UA properties, with some properties ceasing data processing in July and others, as we noted, still operational to this day. Further, Google updated their date for when data in Universal Analytics will be removed to July 1, 2024 — one full year after the “arrival” of GA4, providing DMOs with several more months of easy YoY data analysis and more opportunities to export sensitive data from UA.

Our tip: We still reference historical Universal Analytics data for our destination partners who did not have a GA4 property setup far enough in advance to provide YoY insights, but have transitioned all of our real time and forward looking reporting to Google Analytics 4. Tempest anticipates being fully GA4-dependent for YoY insights long before next year’s July 1 UA data cut off, and recommends DMOs aim for the same commitment. We are also exploring new, GA4-powered reporting solutions, such as direct feeds into Looker Studio.

2. Customizing Reports Will Save You a Wealth of Time

Finding the information you’re looking for in Google Analytics 4 isn’t exactly as… easy… as it was in Universal Analytics. While the data exists — assuming you’ve configured your Google Analytics 4 property correctly — the default report views that made reporting a breeze in Universal Analytics are a bit buried in the Google Analytics 4 interface, requiring sometimes multiple levels of filters to be applied to get the answers you need.

Our tip: Configure custom reports for the top KPIs you tend to refer to in order to determine website success. Once created, saved and published as part of a collection, these custom reports will be only a click or two away. Two of our go-to custom reports are:

A custom "Organic Landing Pages" report configured in GA4, saved under the Engagement section of the Life Cycle collection.

Organic Landing Pages

This custom report takes the default Pages and Screens report included under the Engagement section of the Life Cycle collection and applies a filter to just display landing pages from organic traffic. We take this a step further and add a few more key dimensions to the report, including Sessions (making this the primary dimension of the report) as well as Engagement Rate (Bounce Rate’s newer, cooler and more valuable KPI).

To create: Open the default Pages and Screens report, and click the pencil icon in the top right corner to begin editing the report. Then, in the customization panel:

  • Metrics: Add “Sessions,” setting as the default and moving towards the top of the report. Also add “Engagement Rate” as well.
  • Under the Report Filter section, add a filter for the “Session Medium” dimension so that it “exactly matches” the “organic” value.
  • Click “Save” and “Save as a New Report.” Then, under the reports library, be sure to drag and drop this new report into the Engagement folder of the Life Cycle collection.
  • Dimensions: Add and set the default dimension to “Landing Page + Query String” (equivalent to the “Landing Page” dimension in Universal Analytics and, based on our findings, the only dimension to produce YoY landing page data).
    • NOTE: The "Landing Page + Query String" dimension is only suitable for landing page reports. Reports for other KPIs should use appropriate dimensions, such as "Page Location" for Views (formerly Pageviews) reports.

It is also worth noting that Google did add a Landing Pages report to the default collections in early 2023, however their out-of-the-box report does not provide YoY analysis without further customization (depending upon when your GA4 property began processing data).

Google Ads Acquisition

If you’re running Google Ads placements that drive traffic to your website, you’ll want to be able to easily view the campaign performance within Google Analytics 4. Out of the box, there seems to be no singular Google Ads acquisition report in Google Analytics 4’s default collections, however there is one such report “hiding” from you in plain sight.

Navigate to the Overview report under the Acquisition folder in the Life Cycle collection. There, you should see a box showing Google Ads activity, with a call to action to “View Google Ads campaigns.” Upon clicking that CTA, you’ll be taken to a new report that is not part of the standard collections. To add, simply click the pencil icon to customize the report, make any edits as needed, and save as a new report. Then, within the reports library, customize your collections and add this to your Acquisition folder under the Life Cycle collection.

GA4's default Google Ads report is "hidden" in the Acquisition Overview report. Once accessed, you can save and customize the report as part of your collection(s).

3. Beware of Data Sampling & Thresholds

Google Analytics 4 introduces a wealth of solutions that prepare marketers for a cookie-less future while still providing valuable insights into website traffic, campaign performance, and more. One such element is Google Signals, which (when enabled for your Google Analytics 4 property) provides a more comprehensive snapshot of user demographics by pulling data from their Google accounts.

The problem? Enabling Google Signals also applies data thresholding to some of your Analytics data, signaled with a red caution icon above some reports (as opposed to a green check). While enabling Google Signals remains the recommended action, we’ve noticed for some data — especially events with low totals for the date range selected — thresholding is applied and the figures in the report may be lower (or may omitted entirely from the report) as compared to non-thresholding views.

Our tip: If you notice this occurring frequently or causing significantly inaccurate reporting, you can disable Google Signals under the settings of your GA4 property via the Data Settings > Data Collection menu. Note that doing so will result in less refined user demographic data.

Similarly, we’ve noticed that some reports (such as the acquisition reports) will show different results than other reports that report out on the same metric (such as sessions within the engagement reports).

Our tip: These sampling issues and data discrepancies can be corrected by navigating to your GA4 property settings, clicking on “Reporting Identity” and updating it from “Blended” to “Device-Based” (which can be found after selecting “Show All” in the bottom left corner).

An example of the "Thresholding applied" alert that appears above detail reports in GA4.

4. Build Custom Audiences for Improved Targeting & Reporting

Another helpful resource for DMOs running Google Ads placements is to construct audiences within Google Analytics 4 to easily target and retarget individuals who have visited your website in the past. Building audiences in Google Analytics 4 is relatively straightforward and accomplished within the GA4 property admin menu, and once completed they can be imported into your Google Ads account for improved targeting and seamless reporting.

Google Analytics allows you to add specific conditions and logic to each audience you create, accounting for a more comprehensive view of a user’s journey, their demographic details and their interests in your website. For example, you could create an audience of users who entered your website via an organic search result for meetings and events content, and have since returned via a direct visit, potentially signaling that your content resonated with the user. Alternatively, you can create an audience off of conversion events, such as RFP submissions and visitor guide requests, which can then be used for strategic retargeting opportunities.

Our tip: A few of the custom audiences we’ve built for destination organizations include the ever-valuable and hyper-niche Meeting Planners segment (visitors who have engaged with meetings and events content), as well as groups for those who expressed an interest in family-friendly content, outdoor experiences, and culinary pages.

GA4 allows marketers to build custom audiences for improved reporting and targeting in Google Ads.

5. Update Google Ads to Bid on Google Analytics 4 Conversions

Our final takeaway is another one for the Google Ads crowd. Chances are, you may have been bidding on Universal Analytics conversions within your Google Ads account. As Universal Analytics fades away into the ether, the conversions it was tracking become less valuable and less impactful for your Google Ads bidding strategy. As a result, it is important to update or replicate your conversions in Google Analytics 4 and import them into Google Ads so that you can optimize your ads for those specific goals.

Our tip: This is another easy process, but one that is often overlooked. Google has a handy step-by-step guide, and this can easily be implemented into your larger GA4 conversion event setup process.

6. Streamline Your Conversion Events for Accurate & Efficient Engagement Reporting

As we highlighted in our initial DMO guide to GA4, Google Analytics moves away from session-based reporting in favor of event-based reporting, where every action on the site triggers an event. Two key changes that coincide with this shift are the introduction of Engaged Sessions and Engagement Rate reporting, as well as the requirement to mark certain goals or KPIs as "Conversions" in GA4 in order to report out on them effectively.

We've recently identified that having too many conversion events (usually in excess of 6+) can cause your Engaged Sessions count and Engagement Rate to be artificially inflated. For instance, having conversions such as "Views" or "Time on Site Greater Than X Seconds" can result in dramatic spikes to Engaged Sessions and Engagement Rate, contributing to an inaccurate snapshot of how engaging your content actually is. 

Our tip: Only flag top KPIs as conversion events in GA4. We typically recommend goals such as Meeting Planner RFP submissions, Newsletter submissions, Partner Referrals and Visitor Guide Requests be marked as conversion events in GA4. Avoid using events like "Pages/Views > 3" or "Time on Site" as conversion events, as these are a common event already measured in GA4 as an Engaged Session.

Once your conversion events are streamlined and condensed, you should expect to see a sitewide Engagement Rate closer to our industry benchmarks in the 50-60% range.

An example of common conversion events used for destination marketing organizations in Google Analytics 4.

Interested in learning more about reporting in GA4? Need assistance getting your GA4 reporting view off the ground or explaining to your stakeholders what the key changes are with the new tool? Contact our team today.

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