Where’s my bounce rate gone? Understanding the latest Google Analytics 4 update

By Taylor Setterfield

Google Analytics may have lost its bounce rate, but the latest update marks a significant step forward in understanding the online behaviour of your customers. We take a look at what’s new, what’s driving the changes, and how it’s likely to affect you.

The why

More often than not, software updates involve some tweaks here and there to improve performance and the addition of a few features to make your life easier. Nothing to frighten the horses. Google has bucked this trend and some with its latest version of Analytics, whose unexciting name, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), is the only conservative feature about it. Far more of a rebuild than a retune, there’s been a fair bit of ruckus in the stables since it was announced.

Most likely you’ll have been using Universal Analytics (UA) up until now, the third iteration of Google’s hugely popular analytics tool, which landed in 2013. UA works by recording user sessions, made up of page visits, to produce the reports you are familiar with, measuring engagement through time spent on different areas of your site, pages visited, downloads and so on.

This was all fine and dandy when we were sitting in front of our computers clicking through web pages, but the explosion of mobile devices has radically transformed our digital consumption patterns. Apps, games and videos often use single pages with a long duration, and the traditional metrics of UA can’t provide meaningful data about their use. Getting visitors beyond the landing page, and avoiding the dreaded bounce, simply isn’t as important or relevant as it was ten, or even five years ago.

Google is also facing something of a data crisis. People are becoming increasingly protective of their information online, and savvy about managing their cookies accordingly. A mini barrage of legislation is in train that will limit the data that companies can collect still further. This is great news for user privacy, but effectively sounds the death-knell for UA, which relies on this data for the accuracy of its reports.

The what

Google’s response to the changing digital landscape is a bold rethink of the way information is collected and presented. GA4 does away with page views as a building block for sessions and replaces it with events. These events cover every user activity, from scroll downs to click-throughs, purchases to video engagement, and are extremely flexible, with a large number of parameters for definition. Fundamentally, the emphasis in GA4 boils down to tracking what visitors do, rather than what they look at.

In order to fill the data holes that are likely to increase with privacy restrictions, Google is putting its confidence in machine learning, extrapolating from traceable user journeys. It’s an exciting gambit, opening new possibilities for customer churn and behaviour predictions, allowing you to group users with far greater specificity. And because GA4 works across devices, a much richer and complete account of user actions across touchpoints is in the offing.

The most immediate change you’ll encounter managing your analytics will be in your account and property admin pages. The third ‘View’ column which underpins UA disappears entirely. GA4 has a cleaner, simpler interface for defining and tracking user events. Along with automatically collected events, you’ll find enhanced events with which you can shape your engagement triggers, recommended events, organised by industry, and custom events, for any actions that fall between these stools. Where previously code additions and tweaks were required, the majority of event possibilities are contained, code-free, within the UI.

The when

If you create a new property in Google Analytics, GA4 will now be the default setting, but don’t panic. Approximately 15 million sites are currently using UA, so you’re not going to find it switching off overnight, or indeed any time soon. Also, while GA4 has been available in beta mode (as App+Web) since 2019, its official launch doesn’t mean it’s a complete product yet. Google is still working to plug usability gaps and add features.

While you can migrate your UA sites and information to GA4, the essential changes to the method of data collection mean this is not going to be without its headaches, including changes to how you tag your content. Rather than making an all-at-once shift, Google is encouraging you to set up GA4 to run in parallel to your current UA properties, giving you a feel for the new system while continuing with your current reports. It’s probably the best route for most people, and there are set up wizards to guide you through the process.

The bottom line

We may be dealing with cutting edge technology, but the stubborn rules of life still apply: what you get out of GA4 is going to depend on how much you’re willing to give. The new UI makes iterations to data collection and aggregating much easier and less labour intensive, but you’ll need to put in some hard yards to get a considered and effective set up in the first place.

If you think of GA4 less as a new shiny product, and more as a necessary response to change, it gives you the perfect opportunity to think through the questions you really want to ask of your customers, and it supplies the tools to get answers. Marketers, UXers, analysts, developers and others in your business may have different KPI priorities, but the flexible events focus can meet all their needs, so get them involved.

There’s no getting around it. Google have delivered a bit of a head spinner with GA4. The enormous potential is clear to see, and in a couple of years we’ll probably wonder what all the fuss was about. But as the number of ‘What is?’, ‘How to’, and ‘Help!’ GA4 videos doing the rounds confirm, wrapping your mind around the new system is probably going to involve venturing out of your comfort zone.

At LEAP we’ve had our geeky eyes on developments with Google Analytics from day one, and are ready to offer advice on how to get the best from this update. If you’re daunted by the step change of GA4 we’ll be happy to talk through the possibilities for your business, offer horse whispering services if required, or manage your analytics for you. Get in touch and see what we can do for you.

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