Google Universal Analytics RIP: GA4 becomes standard for cookie-free future

After a decade, Google Analytics is closing down its popular Universal Analytics tool as it shifts to a new cookie-less standard. But will marketers follow or now consider other options?

The move means that from  July 1, 2023, Google Analytics will stop counting new hits on properties using Universal Analytics, also known as UA (GA3). 

The tool has been the most popular basic analytics platform for the marketing industry for over a decade, following its launch in early 2014.

UA will be replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4) which launched in December 2020 as a cookie-free method of measuring website traffic with additional data such as predictive insights and deeper integration with Google Ads.

In a statement, Russell Ketchum, director, product management at Google, said: “Universal Analytics was built for a generation of online measurement that was anchored in the desktop web, independent sessions and more easily observable data from cookies. This measurement methodology is quickly becoming obsolete.”

Unlike UA, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) operates across platforms, doesn’t rely on cookies and uses an event-based data model for measurement. To help brands stay on the right side of privacy regulations it also does not store IP addresses.

“This will have an impact on businesses who do not act fast”

The move is a wake-up call to marketers who have been slow to upgrade their analytics tools. 

Krishan Gandhi, Head of Data and Analytics at iCrossing UK, said: “This announcement has been a long time coming with the introduction of ‘Web + App’ back in July 2019, later rebranded to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in Oct 2020. Despite how long GA4 has been in this space, Google only made GA4 their default/recommended implementation method in 2021 – and the industry would have expected a much larger timeframe for the deprecation of Universal Analytics. This will have an impact on businesses who do not act fast.

“If you have not set-up a Google Analytics 4 property to run alongside your Universal Analytics one, it is vital you start planning to do so now. To maintain the ability to compare performance year on year (when UA is deprecated), you will need to ensure your new GA4 property is up and running before July 1st 2022 (or October 2022 for 360 customers)".

GA4 boosts app orders for McDonalds in Hong Kong 

In its announcement. Google highlighted how McDonald’s Hong Kong used GA4 to grow mobile orders using a predictive audience of “likely seven-day purchasers” and exporting it to Google Ads — increasing app orders more than six times. The team saw a 2.3 times stronger ROI, a 5.6 times increase in revenue, and a 63% reduction in cost per action.

Tina Chao, McDonald’s Hong Kong Chief Marketing and Digital Customer Experience Officer, said: “Google Analytics 4 has equipped us with a strong measurement foundation. We are able to get valuable insights from our first-party data with machine learning and utilise them in our marketing, driving impressive results to future-proof our business.”

 “We've seen a few big European brands considering alternatives to Google Analytics”

However, not all marketers are convinced and some could struggle to adjust to the new system. 

Farhad Divecha, Founder and MD of digital marketing agency AccuraCast, said: "We've seen a lot of resistance from website owners, advertisers, and even data / analytics folk ever since GA4 was introduced. The interface and the way the system works is very different to Universal Analytics, which businesses are familiar with. Resistance to GA4 has been fairly widespread, from small businesses through to large enterprise users.

"Google provided tools to migrate from Universal Analytics to GA4, but those tools aren't robust and as a result quite a bit of work is required to set up GA4 and get it running the way brands want to.

"After France's CNIL ruling that finds use of Google Analytics non-compliant with Chapter V of GDPR, and Austrian data protection authority's post-“Schrems II” enforcement decision we've seen a few big European brands considering alternatives to Google Analytics. This announcement from Google might very well be timed to preclude an advertiser migration away from Google Analytics.

"While GA4's improved privacy protection features reduce the objections of CNIL, it doesn't change the fact that visitor data will be processed outside of the EU. My expectation is that Google would argue that it's no longer personal data being processed, so it shouldn't matter.

"Marketeers are familiar with the event-based model of visitor analytics used by Facebook. GA4 is very similar to that. When advertisers understand this, they find the move less intimidating. If advertisers abandon Google Analytics, it could actually hurt Google's revenues in the post-cookie era, because tracking ad performance would become even more difficult, and Google wouldn't be able to control how advertisers measure the effectiveness of their platform."