If you’re an early adopter kind of person, you might have hopped on the Google Analytics 4 bandwagon. The warnings were clear. Do not remove your existing analytics code. Several months later I can see why!
Google Analytics 4 is the update that gets Google ready for a world where there are no cookies to tell us what’s happening on our websites. It’s a frightening prospect. No real way of measuring our website visitors. No real way to know what’s happening on our sites through Google Analytics. But Google reckons their machine learning knows enough about what happens out there to base some pretty tight estimates on. At least that’s the theory. And judging by what GA4 is doing on my sites right now, I’m not entirely sure that this is going to work.
For those new to the GA4 game, one of the main things that it can do is understand different events on your website. So instead of treating everything like a pageview, it’s made to read activities across lots of different device and property types. Not just websites. So that means that it will eventually read different kinds of actions on your website and link together traffic between your websites, web apps and mobile apps to give you a bit more room info on how people move around your online properties. But it has a long way to go. And Google agrees on that.
My own experience with GA4
I have both Google’s Universal Analytics and GA 4 installed on all my sites. I’m an early adopter and I like to provide feedback to Google and other companies to help them build better products for us all. That sometimes means that you’re going to find some funky little issues along the way.
On one site, I am seeing drastic differences in the number of visits and unique visitors. On this site, where Universal Analytics is telling me that I am getting 1,400 visits from some 1200 unique visitors each week, GA4 is telling me that I’m getting 485 visits from 400 unique visitors. That’s not a small difference. That is a massive discrepancy. In that same website I am getting around 800 visits a week from Indonesia in UA Analytics. But in GA4, they’re showing absolutely none from that country.
This site also shows a big difference between views on specific pages. One particularly popular page is showing 1700 views on UA, but less than 800 on GA4. Clearly one is more correct than the other. The mystery deepens even further when WordPress’ Jetpack analytics is showing that I am actually getting twice as many visitors as Universal Analytics is reporting, and 8 times more than GA4 is showing.
So who is right? Google has long been known to do some algorithmic massaging to the numbers they show. Ever since they bought Urchin statistics, took it off your web server and put it in the cloud, the numbers that your web server showed were completely divorced from the numbers that Google was showing.
Google Analytics 4 is then an even deeper algorithmic interpretation than Google’s Universal Analytics. It’s trying to make an estimate based on behaviour patterns that may have a little to do with your website, but can have a whole lot of input from other websites and generalised trends that only Google knows. Which means that I am left, as a site owner, unsure of what numbers to trust.
So, which numbers can be trusted?
Google’s Universal Analytics numbers have been the default way to share your stats since 2013. When someone asks for your site numbers, they’re asking you to show them your Google Analytics numbers. Any other numbers are considered untrustworthy and subject to interpretation. And I suppose this works. If everyone is showing numbers from the same ecosystem that uses the same algorithmic massaging for every site, then it’s a fair comparison, even if the numbers aren’t 100% accurate.
It goes without saying that I do not and will not trust the numbers from Google Analytics 4 for at least another 2 years. Google has plans to start phasing out UA in late 2022 and they’re already forcing all new analytics accounts to default to the new GA4 standard. But honestly, I would much rather trust what WordPress is saying.
While Google is having its tracking blocked almost by default from all iPhones and iPads right now, and almost all browsers apart from Chrome are defaulting to block third-party tracking (which is what that Google Analytics code is), WordPress’ own internal code on your website is first-party tracking. So it’s the closest thing to accurate numbers that they may be. That’s if you have a WordPress website of course. This means that the most accurate numbers for Wix and Squarespace are probably also coming from internally on their sites.
And given my own experience that shows that even the long-established Universal Analytics is showing half the numbers of Jetpack on WordPress, I am inclined to believe that Google can’t see half of my traffic and isn’t yet smart enough to give it an educated guess, either. And I’m not 100% sure that the end result will be something that I’ll ever come to trust.
So while I am forced to share my Universal Analytics with the world, because that’s what we all do, in the privacy of my own ego, I know that I’m actually getting twice that audience.