Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics – What is the difference?

Following are the main differences between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics (GA3).

In this article, we will discuss the key differences between Universal Analytics (GA3) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Google Analytics 4 is not an upgrade to Universal Analytics. It is a completely different new version of Google Analytics which works on event-driven based models and also comes with a different set of reports.

Let’s dive deeper to understand what are the differences between GA3 and GA4

#1 Reporting interface

GA3 interface
GA4 interface

At first glance, the GA4 reporting view may look intimidating as many of the reports and metrics that you have been familiar with are not there. They have either been removed or replaced.

Businesses should not expect to see the same reports that were available in GA3 since GA4 has a different set of reports. You are going to see different sets of reports in your GA4 view and you are not going to see many reports. This is because many of the reports are generated only when you start tracking events.

The reporting interface of the GA4 view looks similar to that of Google Analytics for Firebase (because GA4 is built on Firebase analytics). But it is quite different from any GA3 reporting view.

#2 Measurement model

GA3 (aka Universal Analytics) uses the measurement model which is based on sessions and pageviews. GA3 uses a session-based model to track data, which means analytics collects and stores information like pageviews, events, transactions as hits and every action taken by the user in a given time frame.

Whereas, GA4 uses the measurement model which is based on events and parameters. In GA4 even a ‘pageview’ is considered as an event. This means GA4 uses an event-based model to track data.

Every activity taken by the user in GA4 will be considered as an event and these events will have more detailed information. Let’s say we are tracking ‘pageview’ as an event, this would also have the title of the page, user location, etc.

#3 Tracking IDs

In order to set up any type of tracking in GA4 via GTM, we use the measurement ID.

Web Stream details 1

Whereas, in order to set up any type of tracking in GA3 via GTM, we use the tracking ID.

If you have set up a GA4 property with a web data stream, then your measurement ID begins with the characters ‘G-’.

For example G-TXKT959827

If you have set up a GA3 property then it uses the tracking ID (and not measurement ID) and this tracking ID begins with characters ‘UA-‘.

For example UA-1509844-8

#4 View and Data Streams Setup

Historically, as Google Analytics best practice, it was always advised to have a minimum of three different views in a Google Analytics property.

One would be the ‘unfiltered view’, which would contain all the raw and unfiltered data, another would be a ‘test view’ which would contain filter, goals and other configuration changes that you would like to test, and the other a ‘master view’ which will have goals, filters and the other configuration that you tested in test view.

In GA3 you have an option to create additional views. You can create a view for your app and web tracking separately.

In GA4 you do not have the option to create views. However, you do have an option to create data streams for your web and apps.

#5 Event tracking set up

The events are tracked differently in GA4 than in GA3.

When you are using GA3, all the tracked events must follow the category-action-label-value schema:

category action label value schema

This is not the case with GA4 which provides a much more flexible event tracking setup. In the case of GA4, additional information is supplied to an event via parameters:

ga4 parameters

In GA4 you do not have an event category, action and label, but it captures the 4 categories of events, which are

  • Automatically collected events
  • Enhancement Measurement events
  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

Out of the above four event categories, automatically collected and enhancement measurement events do not require any code changes on the page or app. These events are automatically captured if the web page has gtag.js implemented directly on the page or via Google Tag Manager.

You can send up to 25 custom parameters per event and each value can be 100 characters long.

There is a limit of 500 unique event names per GA4 property. However, if you need to create new events after you have reached your quota then you can archive the ones that are not in use.

#6 Event tracking automation

enhanced measurement ga4


A GA4 property has got the ‘enhanced measurement’ feature built-in which allows automatic tracking for certain types of events (like scroll tracking, video tracking, exit tracking, site search tracking, etc) without any additional coding/tagging.

In automatically collected events, no code changes are required and events will be automatically captured if the page that you are looking to track has gtag.js implemented.

Enhanced measurement tracking gives us the capability to activate extensive event tracking in all marketing channels. Aside from the default events tracking you will also be able to track (app first_open, i.e. opening of the app; in_app_purchase, i.e. shopping through the app) and dedicated events.

Out of the four types of event categories in GA4 automatically collected events and enhancement measurement events do not require any code changes. However, the below two event categories require code changes to the app or web.

  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

Recommended events have predefined names and parameters and are used for specific business verticals like retail and ecommerce, travel, games, jobs and real estate.

Custom events are implemented by people like you and me. Before creating the custom events always double-check if your event tracking needs can be met from automatically collected events or enhancement events or recommended events. 

Also, automatic and enhanced events provide the benefit of automatically logged in, and recommended events provide the benefit of forwarding compatibility, which cannot be achieved by custom events.

Go for custom events only if existing event categories don’t support your needs.

This is something not possible with GA3.

#7 User and event data retention

Through the ‘User and event data retention’ feature, you can set the amount of time for which Google Analytics retains user-specific data (i.e. data that is associated with cookies, user identifiers, or advertising identifiers) for an inactive website user, before automatically deleting it.

In the case of GA3, you can set the amount of time setting to 14 months, 26 months, 38 months, 50 months or ‘Do not automatically expire’:

User and event data retention ga3

But in the case of GA4, you can set the amount of time to either 2 months or 14 months. There are no other options available:

data retention

#8 Ecommerce tracking

ecommerce reports

The ecommerce tracking capabilities provided by GA4 are still in their infancy. They are nowhere as powerful as the ecommerce tracking capabilities provided by GA3.

Because of this reason alone, GA4 is not yet ready for commercial consumption.

#9 Cross-device and cross-platform tracking

Since GA4 is based on app+web data, it gave marketers a way to track users across apps and websites. This is built with an intent to apply advanced machine learning, which will automatically highlight helpful information for the marketers.

In the case of GA4, both the web and app data use the same schema. Whereas in the case of GA3, this is not the case.

Because of this reason, GA4 provides much more robust and reliable cross-device and cross-platform tracking than GA3.

#10 Attribution modelling

ga3 attribution reports vs ga4 attribution reports

GA3 provides powerful attribution modelling capabilities via multi-channel funnels and attribution reports. Such attribution modelling capabilities do not exist in GA4. This is yet another powerful reason why GA4 is not yet ready for commercial consumption.

#11 Custom dimensions

In GA4, custom dimensions are created differently than in GA3.

new custom dimension ga4

If you are using GA3 then you can set/change the scope of your custom dimension to ‘Hit’, ‘Session’, ‘User’ or ‘Product’. 

There is no ‘Hit’ scope in the case of GA4. It has been replaced by ‘event’ scope.

For now, you can not create a custom dimension with the ‘session’ scope or ‘product’ scope in GA4.

You can create a custom dimension with ‘user’ scope in GA4.

#12 Custom metrics

In GA4, custom metrics are created differently than in GA3.

new custom metric g4

If you are using GA3 then you can set/change the scope of your custom metric to ‘Hit’ or ‘Product’.

In the case of GA4, it is not possible to set/change the scope of your custom metric. A GA4 custom metric has only one scope and that is ‘event’ scope.

#13 Debugging

ga4 debug view report

The GA4 reporting view provides the debugView report through which you can validate your analytics configuration from within the reporting interface. This is something not possible with a GA3 reporting view.

#14 Engagement metrics

Engagement metrics ga4


GA4 reporting view provides a new set of engagement metrics (Engaged Sessions, Engagement Rate, Engaged Sessions per User, Engagement Time) which can much more accurately track users engagement with your website/app than the pageviews and bounce rate metrics used by GA3.

Note: There is no concept of bounce rate in GA4.

#15 IP anonymization

Under GDPR, an IP address is considered personal data.

Google Analytics tracks and stores the IP addresses of your website users in order to report on geolocation data. However, GA does not report on IP addresses in its reports.

If your privacy policy or local privacy laws prevent the storage of full IP addresses then you can use the IP anonymization feature to anonymize/mask website visitors’ IPs.

When you anonymize visitor IP, the last three digits from your website visitor’s IP address are automatically dropped/deleted.

In other words, the IP anonymization feature sets the last octet of IPv4 user IP addresses and the last 80 bits of IPv6 addresses to zeros.

For example, if a website visitor has a public IP of 12.214.31.144 then as soon as the IP data is received by the Analytics Collection Network, Google will anonymize/mask the IP to 12.214.31.0

If you are using the GA3 property then you have the option to enable or disable IP anonymization.

IP Anonymization

The IP anonymization is disabled by default in GA3.

However, if you are using a GA4 property then the IP anonymization feature is built-in, is enabled by default and you can not disable it.

#16 Reporting views

If you are using GA3, you can create up to 25 reporting views per property. But in the case of GA4, you can use only one reporting view.

Currently, there is no option to create additional views in GA4.

However, there are workarounds available. You can create new ‘Audiences’ or ‘Data Streams’ and use them in place of filtered views.

#17 BigQuery

Big query linking

GA4 comes with a free connection to BigQuery. So you can access the raw GA4 data and can run SQL queries on it. This helps in more precise and multilevel data analysis of your users so that it is easy to understand the user activities on the website.

GA3 does not come with a free connection to BigQuery (unless you are using GA 360). 

#18 Session counting method

In Universal Analytics, a session is basically a combination of pageviews, events, ecommerce transactions, and social interactions, and would end in 30 minutes in the case of inactivity.

In contrast to this, a Google Analytics 4 session is derived from the session_start event and there is no limit to how long the session would last. For an app session, it would begin to end when the app is moved to the background. However, you have the option to extend the session by logging the extend_session parameter (with a value of 1) on events logged while the app is in the background.

Additionally, you have an option to override the default 30 minutes session timeout for an app by using the setSessionTimeoutDuration method. You would also see lower session counts in Google Analytics 4 since it does not create a new session when the campaign source changes mid-session, like in Universal Analytics.

In GA4 we have three types of sessions-based metrics:

  1. Sessions: The number of sessions that began on your site based on the session_start event on the app or web.
  2. Engaged sessions: The number of sessions that have lasted for 10 seconds or longer.
  3. Engaged sessions per user: The number of engaged sessions per user.

#19 Difference in user counts

Google Analytics 4 uses the User ID method and considers active users on the site, who are currently engaging on the site, to calculate user count.

Universal Analytics uses the Client ID method and focuses on total users on the site to calculate user counts.

#20 Spam data prevention

A common problem in Universal Analytics has been spam referrals and it was possible for anyone to send the spam hits to a Google Analytics property using measurement protocol.

This issue of spam hits has been addressed in Google Analytics 4 by forcing the measurement protocol hits to include the secret key. This key is available only to the users who have access to analytics property and is not available publicly. Only hits with a valid key will be able to send data to a Google Analytics 4 property.

#21 Advanced analysis reports

The reporting view of the GA4 property comes with a new set of reports called ‘Analysis’ which let you do advanced analysis.

The users who have already used Firebase for mobile tracking will be quite familiar with the new Google Analytics 4 UI as the GA4 UI is similar to the Google Analytics for Firebase UI.

With the advanced analysis, you will be able to understand the customer journey in both mobile and web over the different marketing channels. Apart from this you also have plenty of options with GA4 like custom funnels and analyze the potential segments overlapping to make uninformed decisions.

Following are the various advanced analysis reports:

  1. Free form report
  2. Funnel Exploration report
  3. Path Exploration report
  4. Segment Overlap report
  5. User Exploration report
  6. Cohort Exploration report
  7. User Lifetime report

In the case of GA3, only GA 360 customers can use this feature.

Other articles related to GA4 (Google Analytics 4)

#1 GA4 Intro

  1. What is GA4 (Google Analytics 4) – The Apps + Web Property?
  2. Key Benefits of Using Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  3. How to upgrade to GA4 (Google Analytics 4)
  4. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics – What is the difference?
  5. Google Signals GA4 – See demographics (gender, age) in Google Analytics 4
  6. Understanding Google Analytics Measurement ID (GA4)
  7. Google Analytics 4 training and tutorial
  8. Using the GA4 test property

#2 GA4 Integration

  1. How to connect GA4 (Google Analytics 4) with Google Data Studio
  2. How to link GA4 (Google Analytics 4) with Google Ads
  3. GA4 BigQuery – Connect Google Analytics 4 with BigQuery

#3 GA4 Events

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Event Tracking Setup Tutorial
  2. How to set up GA4 Custom Events via Google Tag Manager
  3. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Enhanced Measurement Tracking Tutorial
  4. Events Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  5. GA4 User Properties (User Scoped Custom Dimensions) – Tutorial
  6. Event Scoped Custom Dimensions in GA4 – Tutorial

#4 GA4 Conversions

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Conversion Tracking Guide
  2. How to import conversions from GA4 property to your Google Ads account

#5 GA4 Dimensions and Metrics

  1. GA4 Metrics Tutorial with Free Google Analytics 4 Ebook
  2. GA4 Custom Metrics Tutorial
  3. GA4 Dimensions Tutorial
  4. GA4 Custom Dimensions Tutorial

#6 GA4 Ecommerce

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Ecommerce Tracking via GTM – Tutorial

#7 GA4 Specialized Tracking

  1. Cross Domain Tracking in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Setup Guide
  2. GA4 Site Search – Tracking Site Search in Google Analytics 4
  3. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Scroll Tracking Tutorial
  4. How to Install Google Analytics 4 on Shopify
  5. Self-referral Google Analytics 4 – Referral exclusion GA4
  6. GA4 Data Import Tutorial

#8 GA4 filters

  1. GA4 filters – Understanding data filters in Google Analytics 4
  2. How to create and test filters in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
  3. Exclude internal traffic in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) via IP filter

#9 GA4 Analysis Hub

  1. Analysis Hub Google Analytics – Exploration Report in GA4 (Google Analytics 4)
  2. How to use the user lifetime report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  3. How to use path analysis report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  4. How to use Segment Overlap Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  5. How to use the Funnel Analysis Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#10 GA4 Advanced

  1. How to use Debug View report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  2. Understanding GA4 measurement protocol
  3. How to create a remarketing audience in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  4. GA4 Audiences – Creating custom audience in Google Analytics 4
  5. How to build comparison (Advanced segment) in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#11 GA4 Reporting

  1. How to create custom insights in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

Frequently asked questions about Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics

Do I need to have an app to set up GA4 Property?

No. It’s not mandatory to have an app to create GA4 property. If you only have a website that needs to be tracked then you can select the web as the data stream.

Do we still have an option to create universal analytics property?

Yes. you still have an option to create universal analytics property or you can also create both universal analytics and Google Analytics 4 Property. 

Can I just use traditional GA on the web and use GA4 to track my mobile app?

Yes. you can use universal analytics to track your web activity and use GA4 to track your app measurement. However, with this setup the users are counted twice, once on the web and once in App.
It is advised by Google that you still use GA4 even for websites, as it has advanced capabilities.

How do I enable Google Analytics 4?

If you have a Google Analytics account (in case if you don’t have one, create one). Login to your GA Admin section and click on ‘create property’, you will see that you have GA4 will be your default option. It is recommended that you copy the code and add it to your website, however, as a best practice, you can use Google Tag Manager to implement.

Do we have an option to revert back to Google Analytics GA3 property after using GA4?

No. You do not have an option to switch back to a GA3 p Property since GA3 and GA4 are separate properties. 

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